Learning Styles & Preferences
A learning style is a student's consistent way of responding to and using stimuli in the context of learning. Keefe (1979) defines learning styles as the “composite of characteristic cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment.” Stewart and Felicetti (1992) define learning styles as those “educational conditions under which a student is most likely to learn.” Thus, learning styles are not really concerned with what learners learn, but rather how they prefer to learn.
Learning styles are points along a scale that help us to discover the different forms of mental representations; however, they are not good characterizations of what people are or are not like. We should not divide the population into a set of categories (i.e., visual and auditory learners). What these various instruments attempt to do is to allocate a person on some point on a continuum (similar to measuring height or weight). In other words, do not pigeonhole people as we are all capable of learning under almost any style, no matter what our preference is.
The literature basically indicates that there is wide acceptance of the concept of learning styles and there is even a study proving learning styles (Thompson-Schill, Kraemer, Rosenberg, 2009), however, there is disagreement on how to best measure learning styles (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, Ecclestone, 2004).. While the learning profession has long recognized the need for innovative instructional activities that relate to the diverse learning styles of learners, there is some question as to just how meaningful they are to the learning environment. That is, most researchers agree that we do have various learning styles and preferences, however, the research tends to agree that it is relatively unimportant when designing learning programs. Rather it is far more important to match the presentation with the nature of the subject, such as providing correct learning methods, strategies, and context; rather than matching individual preferences (Coffield, et. al., 2004).
For example, in a large meta-study, Marzano (1998) found that graphic and tactile representations of the subject matter had noticeable effects on learning outcomes regardless of any attempt to match them with learners' modalities (learning preference or style). Another study found that visual presentation through the use of pictures was advantageous for all adults, irrespective of a high or low learning style preference for visual images. In addition, it was especially advantageous for those with a strong preference for verbal processing (Constantinidou, Baker, 2002).
However, that does not mean learning styles are unimportant. As Coffield wrote (2004):
“just varying delivery style may not be enough and... the unit of analysis must be the individual rather than the group.”
That is, when you analyze a group, the findings often suggest that learning styles are relative unimportant, however, when you analyze an individual, then the learning style often distinguishes itself as a key component of being able to learn or not. Thus, those who are actually responsible for helping others to learn, such as teachers, instructors, or trainers often see these styles and must adjust for them, while those who design for groups or study them see the learning styles as relative unimportant.
Perhaps David Merrill (2000) has the best philosophy for using learning styles—instructional strategies should first be determined on the basis of the type of content to be taught or the goals of the instruction (the content-by-strategy interactions) and secondarily, learner styles and preferences are then used to adjust or fine-tune these fundamental learning strategies. Finally, content-by-strategy interactions take precedence over learning-style-by-strategy interactions regardless of the instructional style or philosophy of the instructional situation.
Merrill continued with the argument that most students are unaware of their learning styles and if left to their own means, they are UNLIKELY to start learning in new ways. Thus, knowledge of one's learning styles can be used to increase self-awareness about their strengths and weaknesses as learners. In other words, all the advantages claimed for metacognition (being aware of one's own thought and learning processes) can be gained by encouraging learners to become knowledgeable about their own learning and that of others (Coffield, et. al., 2004).
There is no good understanding of learning styles as it stands. But it certainly does not follow that we all learn the same way—the senses may well work in concert, but (as someone with thick glasses, I can attest) some senses work more or less well, meaning that each individual may combine the senses differently. - Stephen Downes
It seems at this point in time that learning styles are not really styles, but rather preferences in that we do NOT learn best by using our style of learning, but rather we prefer one or more styles over others.
Learning styles may also prove useful for helping students with mastering metalearning (being aware of and taking control of one's learning). See the section on Learning Styles and Metalearning for more information.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A systematic and critical review. www.LSRC.ac.uk: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Retrieved from: http://www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/1543.pdf
Constantinidou, F., Baker, S. (2002). Stimulus modality and verbal learning performance in normal aging. Brain and Language, 82(3), 296-311.
Keefe, J.W. (1979) Learning style: An overview. NASSP's Student learning styles: Diagnosing and proscribing programs (pp. 1-17). Reston, VA. National Association of Secondary School Principles.
Marzano, R.J. (1998). A theory-based meta-analysis of research on instruction. Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, Aurora, CO.
Merrill, D. (2000). Instructional Strategies and Learning Styles: Which takes Precedence? Trends and Issues in Instructional Technology, R. Reiser and J. Dempsey (Eds.). Prentice Hall.
Hayman-Abello S.E., Warriner E.M. (2002). Child clinical/pediatric neuropsychology: some recent advances. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 309–339.
Stewart, K.L., Felicetti, L.A. (1992). Learning styles of marketing majors. Educational Research Quarterly, 15(2), 15-23.
Thompson-Schill, S., Kraemer, D., Rosenberg, L. (2009). Visual Learners Convert Words To Pictures In The Brain And Vice Versa, Says Psychology Study. University of Pennsylvania. News article retrieved from http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/news/visual-learners-convert-words-pictures-brain-and-vice-versa-says-penn-psychology-study