The application of learning style theory in higher education teaching

Dr David Robotham, Visiting Lecturer in Human Resource Management

Wolverhampton Business School, University of Wolverhampton, Compton Road West, Wolverhampton, WV3 9DX
Tel: +44 (0)1902 323770; email:

Written: 1999

In considering learning and how to improve student learning, one needs to understand the way(s) in which an individual learns. It is widely accepted that while it is possible to identify common constituent elements, the learning process varies at an individual level. Students will develop a way or style of learning, and refine that style in response to three groups of factors: unconscious personal interventions by the individual, conscious interventions by the learner themselves, and interventions by some other external agent. The term learning style only began to appear in the learning literature in the 1970s. One of the reasons put forward for the emergence of the term is that learning style has a practical application, particularly in education and training. Riding & Cheema (1991) suggest that it appeared as a replacement term for cognitive style, and cognitive style is only part of an individual's learning style. The term learning style indicates an interest in the totality of the processes undertaken during learning. A learning style is:

"A complexus of related characteristics in which the whole is greater than its parts. Learning style is a gestalt combining internal and external operations derived from the individual's neurobiology, personality and development, and reflected in learner behaviour" (Keefe & Ferrell 1990, p. 16).

Learning style therefore relates to the general tendency towards a particular learning approach displayed by an individual.

Learning style research

It has been suggested that the research underlying much of the work into learning style is flawed (Hayes & Allinson, 1994), where the primary concern of some researchers has been financial gain, rather than the execution of robust research methodologies (Curry, 1990). Questioning the objectivity of the research, Curry further suggests that research studies into learning style have used only small samples, and many of those studies were done by research students supervised by lecturers. Geiger & Pinto's (1991) criticism of methodology rests on the observation that researchers have tended not to use longitudinal studies when studying learning style, and where they have, they have not followed the same groups for the duration of the study (cited in Pinto et al., 1994). This suggests learning style is temporally unstable. The situation regarding the research on learning styles is perhaps best summarised by Masterman (1970), who suggests that it is currently in a stage he terms multiparadigmatic with no accepted theoretical orthodoxy. Overall there would appear to be no widespread acceptance for any one theory for determining individual learning differences.

A recurring feature of the research into learning styles is the frequency with which different styles are presented as being diametrically opposed. For example, Kolb (1976) suggests that an individual may display a preference for one of four possible learning styles, but these four styles derive from two dimensions presented as opposing elements of learning. Further work by other researchers has presented learning style as a bipolar construction as shown in Table I.

Table I. Dichotomies in Learning Style.

  High Quality Learning Style Low Quality Learning Style
Witkin et al (1977) field-independence field-dependence
Ausubel et al (1968) meaningful learning rote learning
Goldman & Warren (1972) logical forming mnemonic concrete
Wittrock (1986) generative processing reproductive processing
Pask (1976) comprehension learners operation learners
Marton & Saljo (1976) deep learning surface learning
Biggs (1978) transformative learning reproductive learning
Svensson (1977) holistic learning atomistic learning
Schmeck (1983) deep processing elaborative processing
Thomas & Bain (1984) transformational learning

reproductive learning

Although there are variations between the characteristics of these styles, there are elements common to the two sides of learning style identified. Those listed in the second column can be placed under a broad heading termed quality learning. A key feature of these quality learning styles is that the learner approaches learning from a contextual perspective, where a problem is addressed at two levels. At a micro level the problem or task requirements are addressed and completed, while at a macro level, the problem or task is perceived in the context of, for example, the course or subject area of which it is a part. Rather than adopting a narrow focus and concentrating on only solving a particular problem (low quality learning), the learner attempts to identify links and similarities with other problems and other areas. The interest of the individual is not confined to an instrumental approach to learning where task completion is the only aim, there is also an interest in the learning process (high quality learning).

One of the reasons for the development of these dichotomies in learning style is the view held by some researchers that there are two kinds of thinking:

"the view that there are two qualitatively different types of thinking is widely shared. Among the terms used to describe one type are analytic, deductive, rigorous, constrained, convergent, formal and critical. Representative of the terms used to describe the other type are synthetic, inductive, expansive, unconstrained, divergent, informal, diffuse and creative. No doubt the partitioning of thinking into two types involves something of an over-simplification but possibly a useful one" (Nickerson et al., 1985, p. 23)

There is also a view that hemispheric activities within the brain are particular to either the right or left side of the brain. This would provide an anatomical justification for the view of learning style as being bipolar. Riding & Cheema (1991), from an extensive review of the literature, conclude there are only two principal styles "families", the holist-analytic, and the verbaliser-imager. These two broad groupings relate to the type of cognitive activities normally ascribed to the two hemispheres of the brain. Curry (1983) suggests there are three different perspectives on styles: those relating to a preference for a particular instructional approach, those relating to the individual's intellectual approach to assimilating information independently of the environment, and those relating to the individual's intellectual approach to assimilating information with the environment.

One issue ignored by researchers is the nature of learning tasks in relation to these dichotomies of learning style. While it may be possible to justify this polarisation of learning styles based on anatomical differences in the brain, it is not clear whether this polarisation can be applied to learning tasks. There is an implication that if learning styles can be bisected into two groups, then learning tasks can be divided into two categories. A specific learning task will have its own particular requirements, so it would seem inappropriate to think of there being only two kinds of learning tasks. Therefore it is questionable whether this bipolar approach to learning style can be successfully applied to learning tasks. This is an important issue as it has implications for whether one should attempt to match learning style to instructional style.

Learning style instruments

Despite the lack of clarity and agreement surrounding the concept of learning style, a significant amount of the literature has been devoted to the development of a range of instruments claiming to measure an individual's learning style. If it is possible to assess the learning style of an individual, then one would be in a more favourable position to educate them in a more appropriate manner. It is unclear whether learning style is amenable to measurement or assessment. While it is accepted that students do exhibit different approaches to the acquisition of material (see Emanuel & Potter 1992, Gregorc & Butler 1984, O'Brien, 1992), it is not clear whether one can quantify those differences, or whether those differences constitute different learning styles. It is also unclear whether these differences are conceptually different, or simply variations on a single theme.

However, if one does assume such differences in material acquisition are learning styles, by what means is it appropriate to measure those styles? For any assessment of learning style to be considered valid, the learning style of an individual would need to be consistent over time. If learning styles were subject to significant change over time, then any assessment of style would be valid only at the time the assessment was carried out. Research into the relative stability of learning style as a construct remains both confusing and confused. Cornett (1983) considers while there may be qualitative changes in the learning style of an individual, the essence of that style will remain unchanged over time. Claxton & Ralston (1978) suggest that learning style is stable in describing it as a consistent way of responding to…. In a three year longitudinal study of forty students, Geiger & Pinto (1991) found only weak and inconclusive evidence that individuals' learning style preferences changed over time. Pinto et al (1994) in a later study found the learning style preferences of students to be susceptible to change over time, reinforcing the earlier and similar findings of Price (1980).

These studies indicate it is not clear whether changes in learning style would be significant in terms of how effectively an individual would be able to learn following a change in learning style. Is the learner simply tampering with their learning style to meet the specific needs of a single task, or is it a significant developmental change? Given the lack of agreement over the nature of learning style, and whether learning style is a stable characteristic, it is surprising there exists a relatively wide range of instruments claiming to measure learning style. Bohrnstedt (1970) suggests that in attempting measurement, one should always use the most refined measure available, together with well-defined terms so not only are you measuring what you claim to be measuring (the instrument has validity), but also the measurement is accurate (the instrument is reliable). In the case of the measurement of learning style, there is some doubt whether many of the instruments used satisfy both of these requirements. There is an implicit assumption that the relative preference of an individual for one style over another can be measured, and there is a significant lack of agreement over the nature of the construct of learning style.

Learning style and instructional style: match or mismatch?

One of the applications of knowledge concerning learning style is in the area of education. If one were able to diagnose the learning style of an individual, then it would seem logical to assume that matching the characteristics of instruction to that style would make the instruction more effective. Students tend to enter a learning situation with a style of learning already developed. If they meet a learning environment at variance with that style, then it is likely the student will reject the learning environment (Kolb, 1976). In a later study Kolb (1984) concluded that there were potential long term benefits where there was an intentional mismatch between learning style and instructional style, on the grounds that:

"The aim is to make the student self-renewing and self-directed; to focus on integrative development where the person is highly developed in each of the four learning modes; active, reflective, abstract and concrete. Here, the student is taught to experience the tension and conflict among these orientations, for it is from these tensions that creativity springs"

It is clear from the research evidence available that there remains much debate over the effectiveness of matching learning style and instructional style. Matthews (1991) argues that:

"While mismatching is appropriate for developmental reasons, students have more positive attitudes towards school and achieve more knowledge and skills when taught, counselled or advised through their natural or primary style rather than a style that is secondary or undeveloped, particularly when adjusting to a novel and new situation that creates stress such as beginning experiences in higher education" (p. 253).

This finding is supported by Dunn, Deckinger, Withers & Katzenstein (1990), who found that teaching students based on their diagnosed learning style did significantly increase their achievement level (see also Napolitano 1986). In neither of these studies however was a control group used, nor was an attempt made to deliberately mismatch learning style and instructional style for one other group as a basis for comparison. For each research study supporting the principle of matching instructional style and learning style, there is a study rejecting the matching hypothesis (see Table II).

Table II. Research into Matching Learning Style and Instructional Style.

Learning Is More Effective Where There Is A Match Learning Is More Effective Where There Is A Mismatch
Di Stefano (1970) Gehlman (1951)
Koran et al (1971) Glass (1967)
Grieve & Davis (1971) Coop & Brown (1971)
James (1973) Anderson (1972)
Carpenter et al (1976) Nelson (1972)
McCleod & Adams (1977) Montgomery (1972)
Witkin (1977) Thornell (1974)
Hudak (1985) Gorton (1975)
Canino & Cockerill (1988)

Kolb (1985)

(adapted from Witkin et al, 1977 and Hayes & Allinson, 1996)

Messick (1984) and Streufert & Nogami (1989) found evidence learners adapt their learning style based on perceptions of the requirements of a learning task. A contention supported by Talbot (1985) who suggests that learning style varies according to the learning task being undertaken, while Barris, Kielhofner & Bauer (1985) argue that it is possible for learning to change during the duration of a course of study.

Perhaps more important than the question of whether to seek a match or mismatch, is whether it is appropriate to consciously redesign an instructional strategy as learning style may not be temporally stable. Research indicates learning style is not a stable construct, so one may alter instructional style to meet a learning style that will itself change, requiring a further change in instructional strategy. This also assumes that instructional style is the only variable affecting learning style. There are a number of factors affecting learning, so the choice of an appropriate learning style is more complex than these research studies indicate.

Researchers have failed to address the question of how it is possible to achieve a tailoring of instructional approaches on anything other than an individual level. Only one study was found which deliberately structured groups in a learning situation according to learning style (see Standing & Shevels, 1994). Using scores on Honey & Mumford's LSQ to structure groups, groups with a balance of learning styles produced significantly less ineffective behaviour than other groups. This study does not mention the quality of the learning that took place from either the instructor's or the learners' perspective. There was also no mention made of the type of learning tasks learners were confronted with.

It is unlikely that any single group of students would contain by chance individuals who all had the same learning style, so one would need to organise sub-groups based on the learning style of those in the groups. This placing of individuals into these groups would only be correct at a single point in time. Individuals within a group of supposedly the same learning style, may change their learning style, and change it at different rates. Therefore it would be impractical to alter the instructional approach based on learning styles exhibited by individuals. In addition, learners may alter their learning style depending on the task they are faced with, rendering the previous group composition inappropriate.

What may be possible is to promote an educational environment developed for flexibility at the individual student level. This requires a move away from stimulus-response conditioning approaches, in which a passive learner is trained to perform in a set manner in defined situations. What is required is a stimulus-stimulus approach, where the student and the lecturer are actively involved in both learning and the mechanics of the learning process, the aim being to facilitate learner empowerment by developing in students a critical awareness of material studied and the delivery and structure of the material. Learners can then tailor flexible education strategies to their requirements to optimise the quality of the learning experience. This objective will be more achievable where the learner is able to self-direct their own learning. This view of self-direction as a learning style is supported by Brookfield (1985), who suggests that a self-directed learner will exhibit many of those characteristics associated with Witkin's field-independent learner.

The application of learning style theory in higher education for self-direction

There has much discussion about whether it is more effective to match or mismatch learning style with instructional style. In theory, where there is lack of congruency between the preferred learning style(s) of individuals and the approach adopted by the educator, the student may mentally opt-out of the programme, although still physically attending. This possibility must be countered with the recognition that to continually direct learning activities to a single learning style may promote the adoption of a narrow learning focus within a particular individual. In the initial stages of a learning programme, matching instructional formats to learners' learning style would be appropriate, while individuals seek to overcome initial unfamiliarity with the new material being presented. As an individual's proficiency increases, the use of systematic mismatches between instructional approach and learning style may encourage the development of a wider learning style repertoire (see Kolb, 1984). It is theoretically possible that individuals can develop their learning capability to the point where they may consciously choose a learning style they find harder to learn through, as it is the most appropriate learning style, given the nature of a particular learning task.

At a more fundamental level it is questionable whether the style approach to learning of slotting people into pre-ordained categories is appropriate. Stereotyping allows a degree of tailoring of programmes to meet the needs of small groups within a large group. There is an inherent danger however in encouraging individuals to adopt a particular learning style. Individuals may become intellectually short-sighted and tend to avoid learning situations not falling within their personal learning range. A proficient learner is not someone who demonstrates capability within a narrow band of activities, as defined by a particular learning style, but rather someone who demonstrates the ability to select an appropriate learning style from a range, according to the demands of the situation and their own learning capability.

The value of applying knowledge of learning styles in an educational setting is unclear. If there are effective and less effective styles of learning, is it possible to facilitate the development of more effective styles of learning? Secondly, is it possible to structure learning tasks, or modify the instructional approach adopted, to match the learning style of an individual, and so enhance the quality of learning experienced? The first step in this process would be to identify the learning style of an individual, and several instruments have been developed claiming to measure learning style (see earlier in this paper). But, these instruments make two broad assumptions. There is an assumption that learning style is a concept it is possible to measure in this way. Such instruments rely on the learner subjectively responding to a series of questionnaire items. It is not apparent whether individuals are able to describe or conceptualise their own learning processes. There is also an assumption that learning style has temporal stability and an individual's learning style will remain relatively constant across a period of time. Both of these assumptions have not been proven by research to date.

If it is possible to measure learning style, this would allow one to make decisions about whether to match or mismatch the instructional approach used to a particular learning style. By matching these two elements the instructor would render a learning situation more effective for those individuals exhibiting that learning style. In contrast, by consciously striving for a mismatch between the two elements, the learner may be forced to develop a less dominant learning style, achieving greater learning versatility. However, the evidence concerning which of these two strategies is more appropriate is inconclusive, in there are an equal number of research studies supporting either matching or mismatching. On a practical level, it is doubtful if it is possible to structure learning sessions in this way, as any single group may possess learners who exhibit different learning styles. In addition, any deliberate tailoring of delivery toward a particular style assumes the dominant learning style will not change. If a learning style does change, this would render the contrived learning environment less effective. Structuring delivery in line with a narrowly defined learning style would therefore be less rather than more effective.

This ability of an individual to actively select from a personal style or skills portfolio, is part of what can be termed self-directed learning. In an educational setting, a self-directed learner no longer operates as a passive receiver of information, but takes responsibility for the achievement, and ultimately setting, of learning outcomes. In essence, the traditional lecturer-student divide becomes increasingly blurred, as the learner begins to pro-actively structure the programme to match their own learning attributes. The lecturer's role therefore shifts from being one of an instructor, to that of a facilitator, and finally to that of a resource to be tapped, as required by the learner. Ultimately it is feasible that during the course of a programme, the lecturer will become increasingly redundant, as the learner becomes capable of not only identifying what resources and skills are needed to achieve objectives, but also how to acquire those resources and skills. Under such an approach, higher education ceases to be simply something that is done to people, and becomes a platform from which individuals can go on to, in effect, educate themselves.

This would also seem to raise questions as to the exact nature of the role of the lecturer in higher education. Often the lecturer will have developed a highly professional and comprehensive education programme into which students are then fitted. Under such conditions, the lecturer adopts the role of an instructor, rather than that of a "causer of learning". (Mumford, 1983). This approach will tend to create learned helplessness in people, where the individual relies on the input of another external person. A person who normally has little awareness of that individual's learning needs and learning preferences, and who may therefore use inappropriate instructional methods.

The lecturer also inadvertently risks being perceived by the student as a significant barrier to their learning, as they are seen by the learner as being the expert. This may result in an increase in the mystique surrounding the lecturer, leading to them being held in unnecessarily high regard by the student, due to this relative discrepancy in levels of both knowledge and expertise held by the two parties. The learner may then naturally become dependent upon the lecturer to provide resources, identify appropriate learning strategies, and evaluate progress made. It is up to the lecturer to resolve this apparent role conflict by displaying sufficient expertise to ensure credibility amongst the student group, whilst at the same time not overpowering already anxious people. In addition, the lecturer needs to avoid developing in learners skills that will only emerge and be practised within the contrived artificial setting of a particular module. Higher education should be concerned with not only enhancing learning in a specific situation, but should also constitute a catalyst for further self-initiated development of the individual, above and beyond the contents and aims of a particular course. This can be achieved by considering the development of not only specific skills applicable to defined situations, but also more fundamental skills such as how individuals learn, how to improve that process, and how to achieve self-directed learners.

The lecturer must avoid removing traditional barriers to self-direction, such as a rigid programme structure, only to erect new barriers through the use of prescriptive self-direction strategies imposed on the student. The lecturer must be prepared to stand back and allow the individual the freedom to define and devise learning strategies, and to make mistakes. To a large extent, it is up to the learner to decide that a particular learning approach or learning strategy is inappropriate. The role of the lecturer must be essentially non-interventionist, unless the student seeks guidance. In attempting to initiate the process that will enable people to be self-directing in their learning, educators will need to take into consideration: what motivates individuals to self-direct their learning, what are the processes through which individuals become self-aware, what are the key processes that already self-directing individuals use to attain goals, and what is the effect of the social and physical environment on learning.

Educators should also be aware that knowledge of the above factors is not in itself sufficient to achieve self-direction, as people may still not choose to direct their own learning due to: a lack of belief in their own ability, a failure by them to recognise that self-direction is needed or preferable, the setting of an inappropriate learning goal(s) that fails to act as a motivator, and previous learning and education experiences. This final point can be extremely important as the majority of students will have been through an extensive period of formal education. That educational system primarily tends to concentrate on didactic approaches that often view learning as being of secondary importance to memory, where information acquisition and subsequent information regurgitation predominate. However, what is of fundamental importance is that the learner becomes "learning self-aware", i.e. they have an appreciation and understanding of how they learn, their own learning capabilities, and the outcomes they wish to achieve. An awareness that exhibits itself not only during a particular module, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the longer term.

The right learning environment

It is possible to attempt to create what is viewed as an appropriate environment for learning through the design of a course structure. In practice however, this theoretical ideal may become subsumed beneath a learning environment which subsequently develops during the course of a programme, as a result of the composition of a particular group of students. Each group of students will produce a unique pattern of circumstances, values, learning styles, pressures and opinions that will interact in complex ways to generate a new and unique learning climate (Hammond & Collins, 1991). The role of the lecturer in this situation is not to then attempt to overcome this climate in favour of their own ideal-type environment, but to adapt the programme to meet the needs of that particular group.

A rigid educational structure that is imposed upon individuals may satisfy the course requirements, but it may also act as a development block for people whose learning attributes do not match that structure. Although it is likely that a programme that does not have as a prerequisite that participants will be required to self-direct their learning, will be unsuccessful in achieving greater learner control. The achievement of greater self-direction requires the development of a co-operative learning environment, which the learner perceives as being democratic, flexible, challenging, and most importantly, non-threatening. This will require that the lecturer breaks down barriers to learning and self-direction that may be present. This covers: those barriers created by the student during the course (wrong choice of learning approach, poor motivation, lack of confidence), those barriers that the course itself may indirectly create (lack of flexibility, lack of direction and guidance, poor structure), and those barriers that the student brings to the course (reason for attending the course, poor learning skills, previous bad learning experiences).

It is also important that this process of breaking down barriers is not perceived by students and lecturers as a one-off activity. The learning environment is dynamic in nature, and new barriers to effective learning may subsequently develop during the running of a programme, independently and also arising from the three areas identified above. In the initial stages of a programme, the lecturer will need to ensure the existence of an appropriate control structure, as students undergo the transition from being other-directed in their learning by external influences, to being self-directed. This transition is achieved by providing a scaffold structure that allows students to progressively take control of their learning, but that also offers sufficient guidance and direction in the early stages to prevent individuals from becoming lost. This structure revolves around providing clearly communicated and understood aims and objectives for the students at regular intervals. These aims and objectives should also be accompanied in the beginning with evaluation exercises, to ensure that individuals are progressing, and to identify at the earliest opportunity current and potential problems.

The difficulty for the lecturer arises in achieving a balance between allowing sufficient flexibility for the individual to determine what is an appropriate structure, and providing enough support to keep the programme and the students on track. A situation that will be further complicated where there is conflict between such an open, flexible philosophy, and the desire for a more prescriptive and dogmatic approach, that may be demanded by organisational requirements to meet specific targets. As indicated previously, the role of the lecturer in self-directed learning is a flexible one that may require a degree of spontaneous adaptation in the lecturer. As the student begins to assimilate and apply new skills and knowledge associated with self-direction, their needs will alter as they gradually shift from one end of a control continuum at which the lecturer dominates, toward self-control.

The primary question however, will be to what extent will students be capable of fulfilling this role. The traditional position occupied by many where pedagogical delivery to an audience of essentially passive recipients is the key function, may not be effective. This ineffectiveness will be particularly evident in situations where the lecturer has opted for a mismatch between the instructional style used, and the learning style(s) of a particular group. Within this scenario, the lecturer should adopt the role of group facilitator. But, as the level at which students are able to self-direct their own learning rises, the position of group facilitator may become inappropriate as individuals progress at different rates. By definition, those individuals who are approaching self-directing status require a facilitator, or indeed any formal external intervention, to an increasingly reduced extent. Whether lecturers who have typically conducted structured education programmes from a lecturer-controlled perspective, will be able to effectively operate under such conditions remains unclear. There is also an implication that to be able to progress others along the path to self-direction requires that the lecturer themself should also be an adept self-directed learner.


This paper began by arguing that in order for learning to be effective in achieving desired outcomes, educators need to have an awareness and understanding of individuals' learning styles. Although it is possible to identify the learning styles of individuals, it is questionable whether such an approach is valid. Using existing inventories of learning styles, individuals are simply allocated to a narrow range of categories, containing a limited number of learning activities to which they are, in theory, best suited. The suggestion here is that this a fundamentally flawed approach. Higher education teaching should seek to move beyond the enhancement of performance within a narrow spectrum of activities, and consider the development of foundation skills, such as self-directed learning. An able self-directed learner may still choose to use a particular learning style that is relatively narrow in nature, but they are consciously taking that decision, in view of their perception of the needs of a particular situation. There is also a need for further research into learning styles to establish whether they are temporally stable. Longitudinal studies of groups of students during their degree studies would help to identify how learning styles may change.


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