Should we be using learning Styles? Do they accually mean anything? Can we actually measure them accurately?
In both public and private sectors of post 16 education the buzz words of the age are 'Lifelong Learning', Continuous Professional Development [CDP] and Key Skills'. Large sums of government and private sector money are spent in trying to equip the workforce with the right skills for the job role they are required to fulfil, some learners succeed and some fail, some learning interventions are popular with the learner, others are regarded as a complete waste of time and effort'. Often it seems that good money is thrown after bad in a bid to address the problem of the workforce skills not meeting up to the employers' needs or expectations in the fast changing world we currently live in. The demands of commerce seem to change faster than education and training can respond. Perhaps we need to take a step back and take a good look at how we all learn and apply that knowledge to the problem, in the hope that the money spent will have an effective and lasting impact on education and training, and finally produce the abilities and skills required by today's employers.
How can we measure learning and the efficacy of teaching and training if we do not understand how we learn? How can we understand learning enough to improve our own learning and that of our students? Is the way I learn so different from someone else? What factors affect the way we learn? How can we quantify learning? Do learning styles work? Due to the myriad of learning styles currently available which is the best one to use?
Professor Frank Coffield raised the question "Should we be using learning styles?" with research into learning styles and post 16 education, with the publication of two reports in February 2004.
The twin reports were commissioned by the Learning and Skills Research Centre [LRSC] and produced by the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at the University of Newcastle in the UK. The first report was a systematic critical literature review on learning styles and pedagogy in post 16 learning. The second report looked at what research has to say to practice on the question Should we be using Learning Styles?'
The extensive nature of the wide range of learning styles surprised even the researchers who identified 71 separate learning styles models. From this plethora of information, the researchers selected what they identified as the 13 most influential models that are in common usage today.
These were then grouped on to a continuum according to the author of the learning styles claims of being fixed constitutionally based learning styles or more flexible and open to change learning styles.
This created five families' or groups of learning styles. Each model was analysed according to the same framework to ensure comparability of evaluation and an independently researched minimum standard of application. Most of the 13 models that were studied closely exhibited serious psychometric weaknesses. Three of the models could not meet any criteria in the minimum standard, four of the models could only meet one of the minimum standards, a further four could only meet two, one met three and only one of the original 13 could meet all four of the minimum standard criteria.
The researchers concluded that some of the best known and widely used learning style instruments have low reliability, poor validity and negligible impact on post 16 education, and recommended that their use in research and in practice should be discontinued.
Teachers and trainers, in an effort to ensure that students learn and retain information, have developed a variety of skills and approaches to aid retention. One of the mainstays of the teachers tool kit has been learning styles', promoting the idea that students learn in different ways and only a variety of activities will ensure that you effectively reach' each student and help them learn. Generations of teachers and trainers have been made to feel guilty' if they cannot use a myriad of teaching styles, as they are disadvantaging those students who prefer to learn from creative work, group discussions or research projects.
Over the years psychologists and researchers have promoted models of learning and they have been incorporated into mainstream education without their validity being questioned, or their usefulness being gauged.
Student learning styles can be categorised in a number of different ways. Some psychological research asserts that students are thought to prefer using one hemisphere of the brain to the other.
Learning in a logical and sequential style, breaking down subjects and problems into smaller bite-sized' pieces, doing one thing at a time' and dealing with detail, denotes left-brain preference. Left Brainers' are sometimes categorised as lacking creativity and imagination.
Whereas those with a right brain preference like to deal with the whole concept at once, and then focus on similarities, patterns and connections with other information they are aware of. They are more intuitive and like to get a feel for the subject' before dealing with the details. They are often regarded as more flexible, imaginative, creative and stigmatised as being disorganised.
"Ideally a teacher should adopt both right-brain and left-brain approaches. Right brain approaches such as the following are often ignored; they are crucial for some students, but helpful to all: explaining by analogy or metaphor overviews, e.g. describing what you are about to explain summarising mind maps, and other visual representations, modelling, demonstrations, case studies, anecdotes, etc., which show the whole' in context imaginative visualisations, e.g. imagine you are a water molecule passing through a body'" Petty, 1998 p.124
Unfortunately Petty does not explain what research this is based on, nor which criteria he has used to justify this as crucial'. Conversely Reece and Walker, advocate the use of Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles questionnaire, which identifies four styles of learners, Activists', Reflectors', Theorists' and Pragmatists'.
"We found at an early stage in our teaching careers that students learn in different ways. The differences may be slight, but also may be significant. You may have experienced a lesson and thought, "That was really good. I learned a lot from that". However, some of your friends may have said, "That was useless. What a waste of time". This may indicate your learning styles are different. Honey and Mumford (1986) published a Manual of Learning Styles, which identified four main learning styles..
.You can use Honey and Mumford's book, which contains a student questionnaire, to ascertain the preferred learning styles of your own students." Reece and Walker, 2000 p.139.
Again the advice' is very forthright, but also extremely vague using words such as slight', may be', may have', prior to exhorting the use of a questionnaire that itself may have no measurable scientific basis despite the fact it turns up again and again in text books for trainee teachers.
In the report and research into learning styles and their impact on post-16 pedagogy Coffield argued that Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles Questionnaire:
"Has been widely used in business, but needs to be redesigned to overcome weaknesses identified by researchers.."
". Validity not assessed by the authors. More evidence is needed before LSQ [Learning Styles Questionnaire] is acceptable." Coffield et al 2004. p. 28
It is possible to surf the Internet and fill in innumerable learning styles questionnaires in an effort to establish what type of learner you are. Many of the author's of learning styles have their own website where you can log on and
"Work out your Myers Briggs type' this is one of the most widely used questionnaires in the world. It reports your preferences for E or I, S or N, T or F and J or P. this results in personality types such as INTJ, ESFP, INTP"
The same website offers a host of other questionnaires to help you find your type'. However it does carry the disclaimer that:
"As with all personality questionnaires, the results of any of these can be wrong' (all questionnaires recognised by the psychological establishments have the reliability and validity research which shows, how wrong', on average they can be!). The questionnaire can provide valuable information, but the real value of the Myers-Briggs model of personality is in deciding your type for yourself."
In my opinion Learning Styles are only useful in the broadest of senses when they help identify a preference which you can then use to your advantage when revising or learning cruicial information, but no one should exclusively use one learning style - it makes sense to have a number of methods available to you - and to practice and use oher styles to increase your ability to learn and retain information.