A Systematic and Critical Review of Learning Styles

From January 2002 to January 2003
Project Leader(s): Frank Coffield
Staff: Kathryn Ecclestone, Elaine Hall and David Moseley
Contact: Elaine Hall
Sponsors: Learning and Skills Development Agency (now the Learning and Skills Network)

Project outline

There is enormous intuitive appeal in the idea that teachers should pay closer attention to students’ learning styles: by diagnosing them, by encouraging students to reflect on them and by designing teaching and learning interventions around them. A further impetus to interest in learning styles is given by government policy that aims to develop the necessary attitudes and skills for lifelong learning, particularly in relation to ‘learning to learn’ and personalised learning. Some learning styles theories describe learners extending their skills and strategies, developing creativity, analytic thinking, intuitive thinking, reflective thinking and experimentation –key foundations for productivity and economic growth. surveyed the field of Learning Styles and identified the most important and influential theoretical models, assessed the reliability and validity of the instruments developed from these theories and evaluated the extent to which they offered interesting, new or practical implications for teaching and learning. Finally, we examined the evidence that using learning styles inventories with learners and changing teaching methods based on these results had an impact on achievement or motivation We found several significant problems which affect the learning styles field, although some models were significantly more successful in avoiding these pitfalls than others.

•There is an emphasis away from learning on to learner characteristics, underplaying the importance of acquiring subject knowledge and skills and obscuring the differences between the learning cultures of different subjects.

•The theoretical and practical applications of many of the leading models are either under-researched in educational contexts or mired in controversy.

•None of the models we reviewed passed all of the ‘good test’ criteria of reliability and validity, with the result that one cannot use a learning styles instrument and be sure that all the items are measuring what they intend to measure, that the results will be the same of the test is taken again or that the results can predict how someone might approach a learning experience in the future.

•Most disappointingly, we found little good evidence to suggest that teaching influenced by the idea of learning styles has a significant effect on achievement or motivation.

Overall, we concluded that the implications for teaching and learning which spring from Learning Styles models are not new: many researchers do not go much further than suggesting that a variety of teaching approaches could benefit students. However, theorists do differ considerably in terms of what teaching should do for a student with a particular learning style, with views along a continuum from ‘matching’ teaching and learning styles to extending students’ repertoire of skills.

Research paradigm and methodology

The project was conducted as a systematic review: details of the search, mapping and inclusion/exclusion criteria are available in the technical report. A technical report and a practitioner summary are available:

 Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning Styles and Pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Should we be using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre

Additionally, there is a paper setting the research into the context of personalised education:

Hall, E. and Moseley, D. (2005) Is there a role for learning styles in personalised education and training? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 24, 3, 243-255

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