Learning about learning styles

Explorer Activity 3.4 of the ocTEL course involved looking at learning styles. This was a great opportunity to catch up on the debate, and here are my findings in Storify fashion.

I started by reading the abstract of the paper “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by Pashler et al.

This introduces the topic as follows:

The term “learning styles” refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly.

Pashler et al. looked for experimental evidence to support these claims, specifically for studies which demonstrated that

the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

They found

virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles.

and therefore concluded that

at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. 

This is not denying that there are differences in learning style or preference, but that there is no clear benefit to be gained from evaluating this, because we can’t use the information to improve learning.

I next looked at Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice by Frank Coffield, David Moseley, Elaine Hall and Kathryn Ecclestone.

A summary of this work paints a picture of the confusion surrounding the topic. For example, it raises the question, in relation to “a well known learning styles inventory”

does it really measure learning style at all, or is it actually a personality test? And even if the test does do what it says on the bottle, how should teachers respond?

One positive recommendation of the report relates to self-awareness and metacognition:

A reliable and valid instrument which measures learning styles and approaches could be used as a tool to encourage self-development, not only by diagnosing how people learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning.


One of the main aims of encouraging a metacognitive approach is to enable learners to choose the most appropriate learning strategy from a wide range of options to fit the particular task in hand; but it remains an unanswered question as to how far learning styles need to be incorporated into metacognitive approaches.

And this is not a recommendation for changing practice, because…

In a synthesis of 630 studies, Hattie (1992) [Towards a model of schooling: a synthesis of meta-analyses. Australian Journal of Education, 36, 5–13.] found an average effect size of only 0.14 for individualised teaching in schools.

In contrast, Marzano (1998) [A theory-based meta-analysis of research on Instruction. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory] reported…

Interventions targeted at improving metacognition produced an average gain of 26 percentile points [0.26 effect size]

While Black and Wiliam (1998) [Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–73], reported

formative assessment experiments produce typical effect sizes of between 0.4 and 0.7.

As Pashler et al. concluded, effort is better expended on implementing changes in practice for which there is more evidence of learning gain.

Coffield et al. are positive about two instruments, and recommend that

the concepts developed by Entwistle and others, of deep, surface and strategic approaches to learning, and by Vermunt of meaning-directed, application-directed and reproduction-directed learning styles, be adopted for general use in post-16 learning.

The concepts of Entwistle and others and Vermunt relate to context and motivation, which underlines that learners can adopt different strategies or approaches at different times. This contrasts with many of the other instruments which attach labels to learners, suggesting that they are of a particular fixed type.

As “Edutopia staff” say in this article on Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say? – http://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-learning-styles-research

Labeling creates limits, and when it comes to learning, boundaries are the last thing we want.

A final positive recommendation from the Coffield report is that

a discussion of learning styles may prove to be the catalyst for individual, organisational or even systemic change



6 thoughts on “Learning about learning styles

    • Hi Guy.
      Thanks for your feedback. I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      Sorry for the confusion with the link and thanks for pointing it out. I’ve changed it now. I like the paper, because it’s quite wide ranging – not just about Entwistle.

      • My fault – wherever I clicked I seemed to end up at the Vermunt paper! Have now checked the former, and found it equally informative. I thought the section on dissonance was a good reinforcement of the dangers of labelling – your second to last point.

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