Learning styles – the key points

My article on learning styles was lengthy; the key points were easily lost in the detail and it required effort to work through. Here then, are the key points – the quick, ready reference.

  • Many ‘learning style’ theories have gained popularity and acceptance.
  • UK education professor Frank Coffield headed a team in 2006 responsible for subjecting the most popular of these theories to rigorous academic scrutiny.
  • Coffield’s team found 71 distinct theories; 13 of them were examined in detail. His report largely discredits the concept of learning styles; not one of the most widely (wildly?!) trumpeted theories was considered valid, reliable or recommended for use in today’s classroom.
  • There was however, a positive note: Coffield noted that the development of theories has produced a ‘lexicon’ of terminology – a shared vocabulary which teachers and students can make use of when discussing learning.

Interventions of proven effect

Thinking professionals might wonder how they are best to support learning, given that the (predominantly pseudo-scientific) concept of ‘learning styles’ has been discredited? The answer lies with interventions of proven effect; teachers (and their supervisors) should focus effort on improving and assessing:

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Prior cognitive ability
  3. Instructional quality
  4. Direct instruction
  5. Student disposition to learn

A focus on improvements in these 5 areas produces gains out of all proportion to the completion and analysis of unsupported ‘learning styles’ questionnaires.

4 Questions

If a learner is struggling, then teachers would do well to ask the following 4 questions:

  1. What prior knowledge does the learner have? (exams/recent training/education etc)
  2. How motivated are they? (Not just how motivated do they appear in interview etc. What is their behaviour like? Do words match actions? What evidence supports this?)
  3. How confident are they (going into the learning experience or exam)
  4. Do they demonstrate natural aptitude?

The answers to these questions, duly considered, should really help with the development of individual learning plans. It’s not rocket science, it’s not pseudo-science – it’s proven and recommended; maybe not as funky, but recommended nonetheless.

PS: With reference to targeting improvements in the quality of teaching, often one of the most effective gains to be made is through the enhancement of questioning technique – that’s the subject of my next article!

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4 responses to “Learning styles – the key points

  1. The point about the ‘lexicon’ is interesting. And perhaps the impact of this shouldn’t be understated.

    There was a similar point made in recent debate on the relevance of the ADDIE model for Instructional Design. It’s not a perfect model but it’s how we know one another.

    “it is one of the few things that most instructional designers around the world recognize as something common among us. Whether we like it or not we all know what it is, what it’s supposed to help us do. Gives us something to rally around, something we can improve. Almost more symbolic than pragmatic.”
    From CreateDebate.

  2. Pingback: If I Only Had a Brain

  3. Pingback: Learning Styles: fable-ous and tragic | We Are Simon Bostock

  4. Javier Dominguez

    I am doing a survey about Learning Styles in learning Spanish and I would like to quote your article, but I do not know who you are. Please, could you let me know your name so that I can cite your work.

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