What we know: Students as learners: Students are likely to have preferred learning styles

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Students are likely to have preferred learning styles

What do we know?

This is a more contested theory.  Proponents argue that most students have preferences in how they go about learning, but differ in how they categorise and describe these different approaches. These learning preferences can combine in different ways and that can be called a ‘learning style’.

Probably the most widely known model is that developed by Kolb. Based on his experiential learning cycle (see above), it takes the four points of the cycle as possible preferences and then pairs them in different ways to identify the following four different learning styles:

1. Convergers (abstract conceptualization and active experimentation) They are good at practically applying ideas and using deductive reasoning to solve problems

2. Divergers (concrete experience and reflective observation)

They are imaginative, coming up with ideas and seeing things from different perspectives

3. Assimilators (abstract conceptualization and reflective observation) They are capable of creating theoretical models by means of inductive reasoning

4. Accommodators (concrete experience and active experimentation) They are good at implementation and practical application

Another popular and widely used typology is VARK, developed by Neil Fleming:

1. Visual (possibly better described as ‘graphicacy’; this refers to a preference for diagrammatic representation, charts, graphs, maps, etc – not photographs)

2. Auditory or Aural (preference for listening and speaking)

3. Read/write (preference for the written word, either read or written)

4. Kinaesthetic (preference for doing, experimenting and experiencing)

Some of the criticism regarding learning styles has been aimed at inappropriate ways of using the theory, such as trying to customise teaching to meet the individual preferences of learners.  Other critics, most notably Coffield et al in the UK, have written extensively about the ‘lack of evidence’ to support the theory, and especially the failure to demonstrate that knowledge of one’s learning style improves learning, but the proponents counter by arguing that that is because these critics fail to provide an adequate definition of learning. When a student learns, it is very difficult to attribute that learning to any source or multiple sources. This is made more difficult by inadequate ways of even knowing whether learning has occurred.  It is not surprising therefore that learning styles have little evidence of their worth but, as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Implications for improving student learning

Neil Fleming argues that despite the critics there is evidence of reported benefit from learners.  He further argues that while knowing one’s learning style is not a sufficient reason for improved learning, he believes that it is a necessary precursor to understanding how one learns, which in itself may be an important step towards being able to improve one’s learning. The metacognitive student-teacher or student-student discussion is worthy in itself.   So the first implication is that it might benefit students to think about their learning styles and the preferences they embody.   Regarding teaching, there is the further argument that while it would be impossible to cater for every learner’s preferences all of the time, teaching in a variety of ways might benefit some students who otherwise would be disadvantaged. Since Donald Bligh’s work, still valid from more than 40 years ago, there has been strong support for variety in teaching methods and Sternberg’s example in the reference below is an insightful endorsement of that (see pp16-17).

Further reading

Sternberg R.J. (1997) Thinking Styles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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