The problem with learning styles.

I wrote the text here for our PGCertificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) participants. It can be shared and edited if you find it helpful (Creative commons licence).

The video by Dr Paul Penn (University of East London) is available from YouTube.

You may have come across the idea of learning styles, either as a student or as a teacher. You may have heard of students being described as 'visual learners' or 'kinaesthetic learners'. You may have taken a test which purports to help you identify your learning style and discovered that you are an 'auditory learner', a visual learner, a 'kinaesthetic learner', an activist or a pragmatist,. Common learning styles tests include VAK, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory and Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ).

At first glance the idea of learning styles is attractive one --after all, it is perfectly reasonable to state that people learn in different ways. Moreover, if as teachers we can identify the learning styles of our students, then surely adapting our teaching for different learning styles will increase the chance of them being successful?

In 2004 Coffield et al were able to identify 71 (!) models of learning styles and deeply analysed 13 of these. The number of learnings style inventories alone ought to be a matter a concern for us. It is clear that they can't be all right. Moreover Coffield et al identified a lack of independent evidence for any of these.

Additionally, identifying yourself or another person as a particular sort of learner can be very self-limiting. If you take on an identity that you are a certain type of learner you start to believe that you are unable to learn in any other way. If we label ourselves and others as having a particular learning style, then we are really limiting the possibilities of what we might be able to learn.

The Coffield report runs to 182 pages, but Paul Penn's three minute video provides a short overview of the key issues (contains mild swearing).


Coffield, F. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Creative commons:
Creative Commons Licence
The problem with learning styles by John Canning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

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