Landing : Athabascau University

On learning styles

This post by James Atherton makes the case that, whether or not it is possible to identify distinctive learning styles or preferences, they are largely irrelevant to teaching, and are potentially even antagonistic to effective learning. Regular readers, colleagues and friends will know that this conforms well with my own analysis of learning styles literature. The notion that learning styles should determine teaching styles is utter stuff and nonsense based on a very fuzzy understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning, and a desperate urge to find a theory to make the process seem more 'scientific', with no believable empirical foundation whatsoever. This doesn't make the use of learning styles pointless, however.

Teaching is a design discipline much more than it is a science. One of the biggest challenges of teaching is making it work for as many students as possible, which means thinking carefully about different needs, interests, skills, concerns and contexts. So, if learning styles theories can help you to think about different learner needs more clearly when designing a learning path then that can be a good thing.

The trouble is, thinking about personality patterns associated with learners' astrological star signs or Chinese horoscope animals would probably work just as well. A comparative study would be a fun to do and, I think, the methodological issues would reveal a lot about how and why existing research has signally failed to find any plausible link.

There are alternatives. In the field of web design we often use personas - fictional but well fleshed-out representative individuals - in order to try to empathize with the users of our sites and to help us to see our designs through different eyes. See for a thorough introduction to the area. I use these in my learning design process and find them very useful. Thinking ‘how would John Smith react to this?’ makes much more sense to me than thinking ‘would this appeal to kinaesthetic learners?’, especially as I can imagine how John Smith might change his ways of thinking as a course progresses, how different life events might affect him, and how he might interact with his peers.


  • I share your opinion of learning styles as a pedagogical approach. This article by Paul Kirschner and Jeroen Merriënboer also takes on the notion of digital natives and learner control—I suspect you might take issue with the latter critique although you did argue that there is a balance needed between choice and constraint in your book on this.

    Mary Pringle June 22, 2015 - 7:07am

  • Nice article, thanks Mary! I half agree with them re control though I think they confuse choice and control - very different things.  Sometimes learners need to delegate choices to others to be in control. The subtitle of my book says it all: 'choosing when to choose'

    Jon Dron June 22, 2015 - 7:23am

  • My granddaughter (just finishing grade 6) brought home all of her school work at the end of the year today. She went through it on the floor and as I listened to her describe the documents she was sifting through I saw a complete series of pages discussing learning styles. No wonder there are issues and challenges at the post-sec level when students as early as 11 years old are taught all about learning styles and how to identify them and use them in their learning at this age. I asked her about this and I was impressed at her understanding of learning syles and how she was shown how to use them to support her learning. I really am not sure what to think about Gardner's learning styles and multiple intelligences and the impact of all of this on impressionable 11 year olds. My granddaughter did not need to hear grandpa ranting however.

    Stuart Berry June 22, 2015 - 9:37pm

  • It seems that every generation ends up with something to unlearn at the end of K-12! I thinks it's great that various kinds of intelligence are acknowledged, but I hate to think that learners are taught to see themselves as defined by a preference for visual, auditory, haptic, etc., input. It would be better for every learner to develop as many learning strategies as possible and to learn skills like collaboration and presentation no matter what their level of sociability or introversion. Kids are so pliable. They can learn so many things in so many ways. We shouldn't limit them.

    Mary Pringle June 23, 2015 - 4:55am

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