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Learning styles and the nature of learning

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How do students learn? There’s been a great deal of interest in this question over the past 40 or so years. In a number of countries, including the UK, it has a particular relevance as universities open their doors to a wider range of abilities.

Do people learn in the same way? It’s generally accepted that they do not, and that many factors affect learning – hence the interest in learning ‘styles’.

In this article, we shall give a brief overview of some of the main theories of learning, and examine the current thinking on how different styles should affect teaching.

The nature of learning

Behaviourism and constructivism

Ideas on learning are mostly rooted in the work of psychologists working in the area of educational or cognitive psychology. Until the 1970s, the most favoured perspective was that of the behaviourists, who were more concerned with the measurable outputs of learning, such as the ability to reproduce facts, than in the mental processes involved.

However, psychologists became more and more interested in what was going on inside the brain, due partly to the growth of neuroscience and of cognitive psychology. The focus shifted from how did people reproduce knowledge, to how did they construct it? This led to the growth of constructivism, according to which knowledge is ‘constructed’ by the learner.

Opinions differ as to whether knowledge exists independently and is transmissible, or whether it resides purely in the mind of the learner. For all constructivists, however, the most important question is, what goes on in the mind of the learner?

Unsurprisingly, the growth of interest in constructivism gave rise to more ‘student centred’ forms of teaching, such as independent and group learning. There is currently great emphasis on ‘active learning’, wherein the student is an active participant by means of activities, feedback and discussion etc. Such ideas are well established, and go back to Pask’s Conversation Theory, according to which learning becomes a ‘conversation’ between tutor and taught (Pask, 1976), and indeed before that to the Socratic dialogue.

Cognitive theory

In order to understand mental processes, we need to know how the brain functions; thus cognitive psychology lays particular emphasis on memory and recall. Gage and Berliner (1988) give a good overview of what happens in cognitive learning, when we process ‘meaningful verbal material’. There are three types of memory: short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. The first two are conscious memory; the latter is a storage system of vast capacity which under the right circumstances can move items back to working memory. For information to enter conscious memory, our attention needs to be grabbed; this is even more the case if something is to be moved to long-term memory. An obvious example of such attention grabbing is that fact that most people remember what they were doing at the time of significant events, such as 9/11.

Most teachers know intuitively that learners remember better if they pay attention: their task is to provide stimuli and employ strategies that combat the natural forgetting process. Variations in tone of delivery, use of gesture, movement etc. all help here, as do attractively presented visuals using colour and images. A wooden presentation is not conducive to learning.

Capturing students’ attention will ensure that material enters short-term memory; the goal however is for something to enter long-term memory, the storage system, and be ready for retrieval. Here are some ways that retention can be increased:

  • By providing visual stimuli along with the verbal. According to dual coding theory, information is best recalled if it is stored in both verbal and visual form. (Incidentally, this is an argument for using concrete as opposed to abstract words as the former give rise to imagery in the mind.)
  • By making the information more ‘meaningful’, for example by linking it to existing knowledge, by giving it a structure, or by providing a brief overview at the beginning (‘In this lecture we shall be looking at X, Y and Z.’). Learning happens by associating with what we already know.
  • By making the learning active – more likely to encourage recall than passive learning.
  • By repetition – ‘overlearning’, the continued study of material after it has been learnt.
  • By getting students to recite material – engaging the psychomotor responses of speech, and the auditory sense.
  • By mnemonic devices especially ones that employ visual imagery (see point about dual coding above).

Long-term memory consists of a number of schemata which are abstract structures in which new information is stored. Successful retrieval depends on the ability of the information to fit into these structures. Learning happens as a process of sense making: we need to personalise, to relate to what we already know, to provide a context. Knowledge, according to Claxton (1990, pp. 149-50), is "organized into mental packages (‘minitheories’) that are developed to provide clear interpretation and smooth expertise in familiar domains of experience."

Deep learning and surface learning

Cognitive theory considers learning according to mental processes. Motivation is also key to learning: Entwistle began in the 1970s to explore ideas of deep learning and surface learning (Tickle, 2001). In the deep approach, learners relate material to what they already know, consider it thoughtfully, examine the argument, and look for patterns. In the surface approach, learners are more concerned with ‘simply memorizing’ the text and don’t ‘argue with it’ or make any attempt to relate it to the broader canvas of their knowledge.

Learning as a cycle

The above views see learning as a one-off process; others see it as a cycle. The most influential thinkers in the area of learning and management development have been the American Kolb and the British Honey and Mumford, who see learning as a series of stages, described respectively as the experiential learning model (Kolb, 1984) and the learning cycle (Honey and Mumford, 1986). Sadler-Smith (1996) summarizes the stages thus:

  • Stage 1: concrete experience
  • Stage 2: observations and reflections on the experience
  • Stage 3: formation of abstract concepts and generalizations based upon the experience and subsequent reflections
  • Stage 4: testing the implications of the concepts and generalizations in new settings.

Learning is thus a process of observation, reflection, abstraction and experimentation.

Learning styles

The term ‘learning styles’ relates to the (often unconscious) processes we employ when we learn, which are the result of our brain structure, our personalities, our environment, our culture, and our educational history.

A learning style may be defined as a ‘distinctive and habitual manner of acquiring knowledge, skills or attitudes through study or experience’. (Sadler-Smith, 1996)

Learning style is ‘…the way each learner begins to concentrate on, process and retain new information’ (Dunn et al., 1994, p.2, quoted in Böstrum and Lassen, 2006)

A learning style differs from a learning strategy, which is a more conscious plan of action as to how to acquire new knowledge, skills or attitudes, and from learning preferences, which is how people prefer to be taught, for example a person may opt for one of the following (Sadler-Smith, 1996):

  • Dependent learning which is teacher directed, highly structured with very explicit assignments, and with lectures, surgeries etc.
  • Learning based on discussion – the learner flourishes in a group, likes the exchange of ideas.
  • Autonomous – the learner likes to have the teacher as a resource, but to have influence over the content and structure of what is learnt. Such learners will flourish with distance learning or resource-based learning.

There are many different models or how people learn, but little theoretical underpinning for these models or research as to which are the most effective. We shall look below at some of the more common ones.

The model of learning described by Kolb has been outlined above. Kolb also believed that people react differently to these stages, although he emphasized the importance of developing skills in all. He gave the following descriptors to these stages:

  1. Concrete experience (CE)
  2. Reflective observation (RO)
  3. Abstract conceptualization (AC)
  4. Active experimentation (AE)

The idea is that learning demands ‘both a grasp or figurative representation of experience and some transformation of that representation’ (Rodwell, 2005). The result is four different types of knowledge, which correspond to different styles according to which people acquire, and subsequently transform, knowledge (Kolb, 1984):

Divergent knowledge: concrete experience (CE) transformed through reflective observation (RO)

Assimilative knowledge: abstract conceptualization (AC), whereby experience is reflected on and related to general and abstract ideas, and transformed through reflective observation (RO)

Convergent knowledge: abstract conceptualization (AC) transformed through active experimentation (AE), whereby the learner tests ideas by applying them to other areas

Accommodative knowledge: concrete experience (CE) transformed by active experimentation (AE)

Honey and Mumford

Kolb’s model was further developed by the British psychologists Honey and Mumford (1992), who developed the Learning Styles Questionnaire and whose well-known model summarized in the table below broadly corresponds with Kolb’s typology (see third column):

Learning styles
Activists Learn by doing, and tend to be extrovert people who get on with things, thriving on challenge and
new experiences.
Reflectors Like to do a lot of preparation and think about what they do before rushing into a decision as to how to do it. Divergers
Theorists Natural problem solvers, with an objective viewpoint, who adapt observations into theories, and learn from systems, models and concepts. Assimilators
Pragmatists Practical learners who adopt the right strategy for the task in hand, enjoy problem solving and learn by practical application of theory. Convergers

Honey and Mumford make no claim for their questionnaire being a psychological test, seeing it rather as something which can help managers think, and it has been highly influential in training.

The similarity between the two approaches can further be seen in this diagram of Kolb’s cycle (Rodwell, 2005):


Kolb's learning cycle

Cognitive learning styles

Some learning styles are given descriptors based on cognitive attributes, most often described in terms of the dimensions of wholistic/analytic or verbalizer/imager.

Cognitive styles
Analytic The analytic thinker processes information into its components, looks at detail, is concerned with procedures, and is a logical thinker.
Wholistic The wholistic thinker is more likely to see the whole picture, be more intuitive, and notice similarities rather than differences.
Verbalizer The verbalizer recalls words.
Imager The imager recalls pictures.

Allinson and Hayes (1996) are examples of researchers who describe learning styles in terms of cognitive attributes. Their cognitive style index measures learning styles along the wholistic/analytic dimension. It consists of 38 items, 21 representing analysis and 17 intuition; the results are summed and then divided by the number of items in that dimension, with the higher the score, the stronger the tendency towards that particular descriptor.

The cognitive style index is considered reliable as far as re-testability is concerned, and recently it has been revised and the dimensions separated. However, there has been little research on cognitive learning styles and performance (Spicer, 2004).

The visual, auditory and kinaesthetic model, according to which people learn by one of seeing, hearing or doing, has had much influence in schools but lacks a scientific basis.

Dunn’s learning styles model

Dunn’s learning styles model (Dunn and Griggs, 2003) is highly complex and comprises six strands:

Dunn's styles
Perceptual By which sensory mode is learning better achieved: auditory, visual or kinetic.
Psychological Global versus analytic, left vs. right-brained etc.
Physiological Time of study, food needs etc.
Environmental Temperature, lighting etc. of room.
Emotional Motivation, persistence, conformity, ability to multi-task etc.
Sociological Learning better achieved alone, with peers in a group, with authoritative adult etc.

One of the most interesting things about Dunn’s contribution to the learning styles debate is the way in which he proposes that there should be a match between how students learn and how teachers teach (although this has been widely criticized, see how valid are learning styles?). For example, highly motivated students may learn at their own speed (contract activity packages); others may learn in small steps but without supervision (program learning sequences); each student has one perceptual mode which is stronger, and it is important to reinforce through that mode (multi-sensory instructional packages – for example lectures for an auditory student).

How valid are learning styles?

As stated above, there is little research or theoretical underpinning to learning styles, and while anecdotal evidence points to the value of including a range of different styles to accommodate various needs, many do not consider that the teacher should automatically match teaching method to the learner.

Underlying such views is a fear of labelling learners, who may in turn evolve different strategies as they develop. Indeed, it is considered desirable that they should develop a range of skills.

Additionally, learning styles may not be fixed universal attributes but may be the result of cultural influences: some students may be more used to a very lecture-dependent approach. Learning ‘baggage’ may also play a part, for example people may have been oriented towards a particular method at school, or indeed put off learning altogether.

Evans and Sadler-Smith (2006) make a number of useful recommendations on learning styles, which arise out of the 10th Annual Learning Styles Information Network Conference (July 2005, University of Surrey):

  1. Provide teaching that is genuinely learner-centred, offering flexibility and choice (supported by better curriculum and course content design).
  2. Teaching should be sensitive to the learner, and aimed at broadening their learning styles and strategies. Teach using various methods – there is benefit in both matching and ‘mismatching’ the style of the learner.
  3. Provide a positive learning environment, giving attention to issues of delivery and feedback, clearly stating course goals, and providing explicit guidance on assessment requirements.
  4. Beware of labelling students, and be aware of the role of culture in learning styles.
  5. Make use of groups to encourage diversity.
  6. Use technology sensitively.
  7. Develop learners’ metacognitive skills.

What is important from a teaching point of view is not just to follow the learners’ (presumed) styles but offer learner-centred teaching that offers choice, variety in modes of delivery and teaching styles, and clarity in goals, feedback, assessment instructions etc. Learners should be encourages to adopt other styles, and above all, to develop awareness of the ways in which they learn, think, perceive and memorize – metacognition. Such awareness is probably the best gift you can give your students.


  • Allinson, C.W. and Hayes, J. (1996), ‘The Cognitive Style Index: a measure of intuition-analysis for organisational research’, Journal of Management Studies, vol. 33 no. 1
  • Böstrum, L. and Lassen, L.v (2006), ‘Unravelling learning, learning styles, learning strategies and meta-cognition’, Education + Training, vol. 48 no. 2/3
  • Claxton, G. (1990), Teaching to Learn, Cassell, London
  • Dunn, R. and Griggs, S.A. (2003), Synthesis of the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model: Who, What, When, Where, and So What? , Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles, St John’s University, New York, NY
  • Dunn, R., Dunn, K., and Perrin, J. (1994), Teaching Young Children through their Individual Learning Style, Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA
  • Evans, Carol and Sadler-Smith, Eugene (2006), ‘Learning styles in education and training: problems, politicisation and potential’,
    Education + Training, vol. 48 no. 2/3
  • Gage, N.L. and Berliner, D.C. (1988), Educational Psychology, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA
  • Honey, P., Mumford, A (1992), The Manual of Learning Styles, Third Edition, Peter Honey, Maidenhead, UK
  • Kolb, D.A. (1984), Experiential Learning, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  • Rodwell, J. (2005), ‘The assessment of formal management development’, Journal of Management Development, vol. 24 no. 3
  • Pask, G. (1976), ‘Conversational techniques in the study and practice of education’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 46, pp. 12-25
  • Sadler-Smith, E. (1996), ‘Learning styles: a holistic approach’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 20 no. 7
  • Spicer, D. (2004), ‘The impact of approaches to learning and cognition on academic performance in business and management’,
    Education + Training, vol. 46 no. 4
  • Tickle, S. (2001), ‘What have we learnt about student learning? A review of the research on study approach and style’, Kybernetes, vol. 30 no. 7/8