• Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Meeting the challenge of diversity: A cautionary tale about learning styles

    Author(s): Linda Carswell and John T. E. Richardson
    Institution: Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, U.K.
    Session: Research paper  

    Learning style is a popular theme explored in educational development as a means to addressing the challenges of student diversity. They have featured through the 70's 80's and 90's as themes in understanding and improving learning, particularly in computer-based instruction. Educators pondering differences in learning have looked to cognitive factors for answers. Defining learning is complex and understanding how students differ in their approach to learning is equally complex particularly as students exhibit different approaches to learning. As individuals, students will have different learning traits, capabilities, motivation and their nature of thinking and processing on a task may vary, and these present challenges in educating a student population with diverse qualities.

    The new wave of technology has made great promises for education which have had applications aimed at addressing student diversity. Within the individual differences theme, these have been technology implementations based on cognitive factors such as learning style. Learning style is re-emerging as a popular theme in educational web-developments as a means to model individualised learning based on learning objects repackaged for a specific learner's need. The context may change, but the question doesn't: are learning styles useful as predictors and models of student learning?

    This paper questions the wisdom of using learning styles as the theoretical basis for educational enhancements and provides an example of an inventory suggesting that learning styles are of limited value. It provides a literature review of learning styles, within the individual differences perspective, and discusses the theoretical basis of learning styles, the variance in research results, and inherent inconsistencies. Across three studies we found that Honey and Mumford's learning style inventory showed little relationship with preference for mode of communication, learning materials, learning outcome, representation, study processes or recall processes. The first study examined the relationship between learning style and preference for communication mode and learning outcomes. In this study students could choose either an electronic instantiation of the course, electronic group (n=59), or a conventional one, conventional group (n=73). Learning outcomes, represented by assignment and exam grades bore no relationship to learning style both within and between group. A second qualitative study, examined students' (n=12) and lectures' (n=12) preferences for representation of learning materials, evident in the knowledge elicitation techniques of card sorts and laddering. And a third qualitative study, further examined the relationship between abstract (n=12) and concrete (n=10) visual representations of materials and learning outcome and process, evident in recall post-test scores and protocol analysis of introspective reports of study and recall processes. In each of the three studies various methodologies were used across a range of foci. This would seem to militate against any methodology or foci having inherent bias with Honey and Munford's learning style inventory. It is concluded here that this particular inventory of learning style did not prove useful in predicting preference in learning modes, materials, study process, or recall processes. Using such an inventory to model learning and teaching materials, embedded in technology or otherwise, is unlikely to yield significant enhancements for learners.