One the interesting things about teaching on a PGCert in Learning and Teaching in HE and supporting experienced staff though their HEA Fellowships is observing the continuing stickiness of the idea of ‘learning styles.’ I see lots of references to colleagues stating that they adapt (or try to adapt) their teaching practices to suit students in accordance with their “learning styles” (Reference Myers-Briggs, Honey, and Mumford, VARK etc.).
An awareness that not all students learn in the same way is important, but the idea that each student is a certain ‘type’ of learner is somewhat problematic. If you studied in the 1990s or 2000s you may have been encouraged to take a test to find out your learning style or you may have been told that you are a ‘kinaesthetic learner’ or a ‘visual learner’. Some of the best known inventories of learning styles include Myers-Briggs, Kolb and Honey and Mumford, and some colleagues purport to use these.
In 2004 Frank Coffield and others produced a report which analysed 13 learning style inventories in depth and referenced many more. The fact that there are so many choices of learning style inventories would probably indicate that they cannot all be correct. As well as putting pressure on the teacher to adapt their teaching to take into account every possible learning style, the idea of being a ‘visual learner’ or a ‘kinaesthetic learner’ can be self limiting for students too – if they think they learn in a certain way they can be closed to the possibilities of learning in different ways, or may not seek to develop in areas they feel weaker in.
15 years after Coffield I’ve not done much in the way of finding out why such strong belief in learning styles continues to persist, but some ideas has emerged in talking to colleagues. One theory is that the students who were tested and categorised into these different learning types are now the teachers and are bringing these ideas into their classrooms. Secondly, there remains an industry around learning styles with vested business interested. Thirdly there are educationalists, psychologists and others whose beliefs in learning styles persist.
Many are quite surprised when I tell them about Coffield et al’s report as they assumed that learning styles is an inherent part of the good practice. Rather than getting cross about this, most seem surprisingly relieved and liberated when they find out the idea has been found wanting.
As noted above rejecting the idea of learning styles does not means that mean that we accept that everyone learns in the same way.