Tutors who use some popular learning models could be wasting their time. The evidence, says Frank Coffield, suggests that all are not equal
New staff are routinely asked to identify their predominant learning style as part of teacher training. This knowledge, it is hoped, will allow them to tailor their teaching to the students, whom they will have similarly tested. Various questionnaires and other instruments have emerged to determine individual learning styles. But how reliable and valid are they?
Although intuitively appealing, does independent research evidence support theories that claim there are four types of learners or that learning is best organised in a cycle, or that matching the styles of teachers and learners will improve attainment, attendance and behaviour? The Learning and Skills Research Centre funded David Moseley, Elaine Hall, Kathryn Ecclestone and me to investigate.
We selected 13 of the 71 most influential models of learning styles for closer study. We examined some of the most well-known models, such as David Kolb's learning style inventory, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford's learning styles questionnaire, Rita Dunn and Kenneth Dunn's model and Anthony Gregorc's style delineator. We also looked at more recent models, such as Chris Jackson's learning inventory and Ned Herrmann's brain dominance theory.
To ensure consistency, we applied the same criteria to each. We examined theoretical origins, definition of terms, the instrument itself, the claims made by the author(s) about reliability and validity, any external studies of these claims and any independent empirical evidence of impact on teaching and learning.
We grouped all the models along a continuum according to the extent to which their authors claim that learning styles are either constitutionally based and relatively fixed or more flexible and open to change. In this way we created five "families" from, at one end, Gregorc and Dunn and Dunn, who claim that styles are largely constitutionally based, to, at the other, Noel Entwistle and Jan Vermunt, who have shifted from a concentration on learning styles to general approaches, strategies, orientation and conceptions of learning adopted by students in higher education.
Our findings, which will be published in full this month, give a mixed message. First, learning styles provide tutors and learners with a language with which to discuss their learning preferences: how people learn or fail to learn, how both parties can facilitate or hinder these processes, and the strengths and weaknesses of the different models and inventories of learning styles. But the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles are all highly questionable.
Second, self-assessment of learning styles should be based only on instruments that have been independently validated. Teachers should use them to encourage students and staff to develop their understanding of learning, not only by diagnosing how people learn but also by showing them how to enhance their learning by, for example, adopting styles and approaches that have been demonstrated to be more effective.
But, perhaps more importantly, we found that none of the most popular learning style instruments have been adequately validated through independent research. The quality of the leading models varies markedly. It matters which instrument tutors choose to use with students. Some of the best-known and commercially successful instruments have such low reliability and negligible impact on pedagogy that we are recommending their use in research and in practice be discontinued. And yet we know that they are being used by tutors and researchers, as well as being recommended by Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate as a quick way to differentiate between students.
Some inventories emerged from our rigorous evaluation with fewer defects, and these deserve to be researched further. For example, the models and inventories of Entwistle and Vermunt have been developed over many years and can be used to discuss with students changes in teaching and learning.
They would, however, need to be redesigned and revalidated for use in other post-16 learning contexts. Tutors who are using learning styles should check that they are not wasting their own and their students' time by using an instrument for which there is no good research evidence.
Frank Coffield is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.