Learning Styles and Strategies

Why is this page here? On a site largely devoted to respectable knowledge about learning? I have already written about it on my more personal site, albeit under the heading of "heterodoxy" (a.k.a. "heresy") but I do actually believe what that page asserts. This is a marginally more respectable treatment of the topic, but it deserves attention (or just "debunking") because of its pernicious strangle-hold on much teacher training nowadays.

The major source on this topic must be:

  • www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/1540.pdf: formally; COFFIELD F, MOSELEY D, HALL E and ECCLESTONE K (2004) Should we be using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice London; Learning and Skills Development Agency.

with shorter articles based on it, at

And now, in 2005, the following report from the Demos thinktank makes similar points:

(No apologies for repeating this material! The sooner teachers are liberated from the thrall of this notion the better.)


More dispassionately...

No experienced (or even inexperienced) teacher of my acquaintance argues with the proposition that "people learn in different ways" (hard-line behaviourists might do so, but I've never met any!). The assumptions of the "learning styles" movement (if it can be called such) are that:

  • People do learn in distinctively different ways
    • it is possible to develop a relatively simple taxonomy of learning styles;
      • and then develop test instruments to ascertain individuals' learning styles and;
        • teach to address them. (And, moreover, assess the "quality of teaching" with reference to this dubious chain of inference.)

The problem is that even if the initial premise is true, the second one is very dubious...

Coffield et al (2004) conceded that two approaches to learning styles were reasonably valid and reliable. These were;

...but both of these are principally about learning strategies.

The distinction between styles and strategies is important.

Learning "Style"

A hard line "style" argument suggests that students can only learn in a certain way. In its extreme position it suggests that the style is neurologically determined. If this is accepted, then teachers are clearly obliged to present material tailored to that style.

A softer "style" argument suggests that students have clear preferences for learning in a certain way. This is more problematic for teachers; do they "pander" to the preference, or do they have an obligation to "stretch" students to become more versatile?

On the whole (I believe, but please evaluate the evidence for yourself) the research evidence does not support the notion that there are "hard-wired" styles. Certainly, students may well have preferences; I know what mine are, but;

  • they are not as clear-cut as the various "inventories" suggest, and
  • motivation over-rides them with no contest.

It is policy in some further education colleges in the UK to administer a learning styles assessment to students at their course induction, and the course leader then gets the results in order to tailor their teaching style to the needs of the students. I have not done any systematic research on this (and I don't know of any, although I confess I don't trawl the journal abstracts like I used to; so if you are looking for a topic for your Master's or even Doctoral dissertation, it's on offer) but the impression I get from my students—who are after all practising teachers—is that regardless of the chosen instrument, the differences are fairly marginal and provide little direction for teaching strategies.

Broadly speaking, this position (whether hard or soft) is associated with schemes such as:

  • learning modalities: visual, aural, [reading], kinaesthetic, often referred to as VAK or VARK and also tied up with multiple intelligences theory and accelerated learning.
  • the Dunn and Dunn model: 21 (!) elements grouped under five "stimuli". What on earth would you do with that information about 30 students? (Sorry, my personal evaluation crept in there, but I won't delete it.)
  • Gregorc's Learning Styles Delineator
  • Witkin: field-dependence and independence
  • Kolb and Honey & Mumford; but it does depend on how you read Kolb, in particular
  • even Pask's holist/serialist distinction (although he was too tight an experimentalist to speculate about the origins of his findings.)

I have deliberately not supplied links for all this stuff here; if you are that keen on it, copy significant phrases and paste them into a search engine; despite the fact that some links would be to this site, it's probably not worth the time.


Learning "Strategies"

The "strategy" argument is that students choose to learn in different ways depending on their motivation, the nature of the course and subject-matter, and a host of other variables. Claxton (1996) suggests that in each class, students make a "cost/benefit analysis" of the best way to approach it. If such choices are made on a situational basis, they are relatively easy to change and there is little reason for teachers to get hung up about them.

  • The major model here is the distinction between "deep" and "surface" learning. The principal variable is motivation; the greater the intrinsic motivation, the more likely the adoption of a deep learning strategy. This of course is the model which comes out best in the Coffield review (given that Vermunt is principally an elaboration of it).

However, there is some evidence that this view is a little too sanguine. Surface approaches to learning may be "merely" habitual, but established habits are not that easy to change, particularly if they have "worked" so far. For most students, learning has been their career so far; John Holt suggests that "pleasing the teacher" is a strategy which many pupils adopt in primary/elementary school. For some, college or university study may be a chance to throw off the shackles of school learning and to engage with what they are really interested in; but many are still focused on the:

get to university —> get a good degree  —> get a good job  —> earn a lot of money  —> live happily ever after

process. They are not going to jeopardise that by taking risks; you as teachers may say that deep engagement with the subject will pay off. That's all very well, but can you be trusted?

See "Resistance to Learning" on this site, and relate it to students' established survival strategies.

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ATHERTON J S (2004) Teaching and Learning:    [On-line] UK: Available:  Accessed:

Original material © James Atherton: last up-dated 12 March, 2005

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