Learning Styles Mini-Literature Review

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Sandy Gambill, Sr. Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The idea that individuals learn in different ways has been around for centuries. “As early as 334 BC, Aristotle said that “each child possessed specific talents and skills” and he noticed “individual differences in young children.” (Reiff, 92.)

Research on learning styles in the 1970s (Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model)  and 1980’s (Honey and Mumford’s Managerial Model) coalesced in the 1990’s as Neil Fleming developed The VARK Questionnaire. VARK deals with  four primary learning styles. Visual learners prefer to see diagrams, maps and graphics. Auditory learners prefer lectures or hearing explanations. Those who have the read/write style, prefer information written out, while kinesthetic learners prefer active learning experiences such as simulations or demonstrations. These four styles can overlap in individuals who have multimodal style.

The VARK Questionnaire is presented online as an interactive tool that lets you answer a few questions to determine your preferred learning style. For example, my results came back visual: 6, aural: 2, read/write: 8, and kinesthetic: 4, meaning that I have a “mild read/write learning preference.” Once you have completed the questionnaire, VARK suggests study strategies matching your style.

Many teachers have used VARK with their students, so it is not unusual to encounter a student in a class who is very vocal about having a learning style and feeling they can’t learn in other ways. Although the terms learning style and learning preference are used interchangeably in the literature, it is important to help students draw a distinction if they believe their style is set in stone and they can’t learn in other ways.  For example, students who  believe they can only learn through a visual style may question why you are not using PowerPoint or posting your notes online, even if that doesn’t fit with the pedagogy of the course. You may need to have a conversation with them about study strategies for their course, such as making their own diagrams from their notes.

VARK also features a teaching style questionnaire. Contrast my results here with my learning style preference: visual: 3, aural: 8, read/write: 5, kinesthetic: 2. This indicates I have a “mild aural teaching preference,” which is really at odds with my read/write learning preference. In fact, as a learner, I scored lower in the aural category than any other. As a teacher with an aural style, I need to think about what I like as a learner and make sure I’m not just saying something in class once and expecting students to get it. Tasks such as remembering to put assignments in writing, rather than just talking through them in class become very important.

While the jury is still out on whether or not learning styles actually exist, or that mapping your instruction to specific learning styles helps learners, (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, 2008), there is growing interest in learning styles as a tool to create a more inclusive classroom.  Consider having your students use VARK to determine their learning style. Then take the teaching style questionnaire yourself. Are your teaching strategies in sync with the way your students believe they best learn? If not, how can you bridge the gap?

If you want to learn more about learning styles, explore these resources.

  1. Reiff, Judith C., Learning Styles. What Research Says to The Teacher Series.

  2. David Kolb http://learningfromexperience.com/

  3. Honey and Mumford: https://www.talentlens.co.uk/assets/lsq/downloads/learning-styles-questionnaire-80-item.pdf

  4. Neil Fleming’s Vark: http://vark-learn.com/

  5. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Pasher, McDaniel, Rohrer and Bjork. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

  6. Learning Styles and Pedagogy in post 16 learning: a critical review . Learning and Skills Research Center.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu.

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