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Learning Styles

When it comes to learning, each one of us tends to have different ways to approach the material. We often have preferences and learn better when we can approach our learning in particular ways. For example, some people learn better when they can see it represented in a visual way, while others prefer to have someone explain it to them. These different preferences are known as learning styles.

Many of us have a number of different learning styles. While you might learn best when someone explains it to you, it also helps when you have the chance to try it out for yourself. By combining different approaches we can give our students better chances to interact with the material in ways that makes sense for them. Remember, you can’t make every one of your lessons cover all the different learning styles, but you can try to make sure that you have options available for students who are really struggling with the material because they just can’t approach it from the same angle.

What’s Your Learning Style?

We all have preferences for how we learn. As teachers, it helps to know our preferences. We’ll naturally build our lessons and assignments to match our own learning styles. There’s nothing wrong with having a preference, but if we know we have a particular tendency it can help us keep a special eye out to make sure we aren’t excluding other kinds of learning styles. For example, if we like to present information in a clear, sequential order that moves our students’ understanding towards a major point, we are often just confusing students who need to see the bigger picture first before they can understand the details.

The research on learning styles

 The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning that work best for them. This Teaching Tip discusses the distinction between learning styles and learning preferences, and summarizes the Solomon-Felder index of learning styles.

There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report (Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence). They state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigourous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style (Pashler, McDaniel, Roghrer, & Bjork, 2008).

In a recent study, Matching Learning Style to Instruction Method: Effects on Comprehension, Rogowsky and colleagues (2015) conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught—learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

There are many different learning style models, so try to consider the models that make the most sense to you and to what you are teaching in your discipline. Below are some examples of popular models with links to more information on the models and online quizzes to see what your preferences might be. You can also share the quizzes with your students so they too can understand what their learning strengths might be.

Learning Style Models-

Niel Fleming’s VARK Model

For a more detailed explanation of the model, and for a quiz, check out Niel Fleming’s webpage.

  1. Visual
  2. Audio/Auditory
  3. Reading/Writing
  4. Kinesthetic/tactile

Soloman and Felder’s  Model

For more information on this model, check out these resources on the Soloman/Felder model at University of Waterloo. You can also take this quiz for the Soloman/Felder model from NC State University to assess your preferences.

  1. Active vs. reflective
  2. Sensing vs. intuitive
  3. Visual vs. Verbal
  4. Sequential vs. Global

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

For more information on Gardner’s theory check out the Wikipedia article on Multiple Intelligences.You can check your intelligences with this quiz for Garner’s  model developed by the Birmingham Grid for Learning.

  1. Linguistic Learner
  2. Logical/Mathematical Learner
  3. Spatial Learner
  4. Musical Learner
  5. Bodily/Kinesthetic Learner
  6. Naturalistic Learner
  7. Interpersonal Learner
  8. Intrapersonal
  9. Existential

Criticism of Learning Styles

The idea of tailoring teaching to particular learning styles has received a lot of criticism. Critics believe that there is little empirical evidence proving that teaching with a particular method that matches a student’s learning style will increase learning. Part of the problem may be the assumption that students have one learning style or that every subject can be taught just as effectively with any of the learning style methods.

Pedagogical Development Office
Vanier College