Are there really different types of “learners”?
A learning style is the method of educating particular to an individual that is presumed to allow that individual to learn best. The idea of learning styles is a somewhat unfounded deduction of the observation that most people favor particular types of interactions when it comes to learning. Based on this concept, the idea of individualized "learning styles" was created, popularized later by Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Model.
Most of the models of learning styles include the following types:
- Auditory learning occurs through hearing the spoken word.
- Kinesthetic learning occurs through doing and interacting.
- Visual learning occurs through looking at images, mindmaps, demonstrations and body language.
Aiming to explain why aptitude tests, school grades, and classroom performance often fail to identify real ability, Robert J. Sternberg listed various cognitive dimensions in his book Thinking Styles (1997). Several other models are also often used when researching learning styles. This includes the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Model and the DISC assessment.
Professor Chris Jackson (School of Organisation & Management, UNSW) has recently proposed a different kind of measure of learning styles. Known as the Learning Styles Profiler, his neuropsychological model of learning in personality argues Sensation Seeking provides a core biological drive of curiosity, learning and exploration. A high drive to explore leads to dysfunctional learning consequences unless congitions such as goal orientation and emotional intelligence re-express it in more complex ways to achieve more complex and functional outcomes such as high work performance. Evidence for this model is allegedly impressive (Jackson, 2005; Jackson, in press; O'Connor & Jackson, in press) but unverified by independent research.
Criticisms of learning styles
While learners often have personal preferences about the types of learning experiences that they prefer - there is no research that supports the idea that people are somehow a certain "type" of learner. In fact many times learner preference has more to do with previous personal experience than cognitive differences. For example, if an individual had a boring teacher who lectured all day every day they may not prefer to learn by listening to someone speak - yet someone who had an engaging speaker as a teacher may say that they do prefer to learn by listening to someone speak. Clearly people have learning preferences, but they are most likely not because they are a specific type of learner.
The other major criticism of learning styles, other than the fact that it is not based on valid research, is that it labeling learners. This labeling may actually do more harm than good .
Lack of evidence
Learning-styles theories have been criticized by many. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for these models and the theories on which they are based. Many educational psychologists believe that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds. According to Stahl, there has been an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning."
The critique of Coffield, et al.
A non-peer-reviewed literature review by authors from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne identified 71 different theories of learning style. This report, published in 2004, criticized most of the main instruments used to identify an individual's learning style. In conducting the review, Coffield and his colleagues selected 13 of the most influential models for closer study, including most of the models cited on this page. They examined the theoretical origins and terms of each model, and the instrument that was purported to assess types of learning style defined by the model. They analyzed the claims made by the author(s), external studies of these claims, and independent empirical evidence of the relationship between the 'learning style' identified by the instrument and students' actual learning. Coffield's team found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research, leading to the conclusion that the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all "highly questionable."
One of the most widely-known theories assessed by Coffield's team was the learning styles model of Dunn and Dunn, a VAK model. This model is widely used in schools in the United States, and 177 articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals referring to this model . The conclusion of Coffield et al. was as follows:
Despite a large and evolving research programme, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model.
In contrast, a 2005 report provided evidence confirming the validity of Dunn and Dunn's model, concluding that "matching students’ learning-style preferences with complementary instruction improved academic achievement and student attitudes toward learning." This meta-analysis, made by one of Rita Dunn's students, does not take account of the previous criticism on the research.
Coffield's team claimed that another model, Gregorc's Style Delineator (GSD), was "theoretically and psychometrically flawed" and "not suitable for the assessment of individuals."
Other critiques of learning styles models
Coffield and colleagues are not alone in their judgment. Demos, a UK think tank, published a report on learning styles prepared by a group chaired by Exeter University's David Hargreaves that included Usha Goswami from Cambridge University and David Wood from the University of Nottingham. The Demos report said that the evidence for learning styles was "highly variable", and that practitioners were "not by any means frank about the evidence for their work." 
Cautioning against interpreting neuropsychological research as supporting the applicability of learning style theory, John Geake, Professor of Education at the UK's Oxford Brookes University, and a research collaborator with Oxford University's Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain, commented that
We need to take extreme care when moving from the lab to the classroom. We do remember things visually and aurally, but information isn't defined by how it was received.
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine (27th July 2007), Susan Greenfield said that "from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense".
1. Curry, L. (1990). One critique of the research on learning styles. Educational Leadership, 48, 50-56.
2. Stahl, S. A. (2002). Different strokes for different folks? In L. Abbeduto (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing on controversial issues in educational psychology (pp. 98-107). Guilford, CT, USA: McGraw-Hill.
3. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
4. Dunn, R., Dunn, K., & Price, G. E. (1984). Learning style inventory. Lawrence, KS, USA: Price Systems.
5. Lovelace, MK (2005). Meta-Analysis of Experimental Research Based on the Dunn and Dunn Model. Journal Of Educational Research, 98: 176-183.
6. Hargreaves, D., et al. (2005). About learning: Report of the Learning Working Group. Demos.
7. Revell, P. (2005). Each to their own. The Guardian.