Understanding How You Learn
No two learners are alike. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we absorb and apply new concepts, skills and information in different ways.
Over the past few decades, scientists, psychologists and education experts have tried many ways to explain and classify these "learning styles." But can we ever pin down someone's entire approach to learning? And, if we could, would that make them any better at doing it?
Recently, doubts have been raised about the efficacy of some of the most influential learning models. But there's still much to be gained from studying the ideas behind them. Used with caution, learning styles can offer valuable insight into what approach works best for an individual.
In this article, we explore the most important theories, assess the latest thinking, and examine how, when it's done appropriately, putting these models into practice can enable you and your team to learn faster and more effectively.
What Are Learning Styles?
The notion that everyone has their own learning style became popular in the 1970s. It's an attractive thought: if each of us could identify our ideal approach to learning, we could play to our strengths, mitigate our weaknesses, and add the most useful new techniques to our repertoire.
What's more, by understanding other people's needs, we'd know how best to support them to learn. It could revolutionize education, training and L&D, helping all of us to reach our full potential as learners.
We'll start by outlining the most influential theories – and then we'll assess their limitations, too.
Different Learning Styles: 5 Influential Models and Theories
1. David Kolb and Experiential Learning
David Kolb's model of "experiential learning" states that we learn continually, and, in the process, we build particular strengths. These strengths give rise to personal preferences, which he describes in terms of four learning styles: Accommodating, Converging, Diverging, and Assimilating.
Accommodators are people who like to be "hands-on," both when they're gathering information and when they're putting it to use. They're keen to learn from real experience, and they look for practical ways to apply it.
Convergers deal better with abstract ideas, but they still like to end up with concrete results. They readily understand theory, but they increase their expertise by testing it out in practice.
Divergers tend to use personal experiences and practical ideas to formulate theories that they can apply more widely.
Assimilators are most comfortable working with abstract concepts. They learn well without the need to test ideas in the real world, and they extend their understanding by developing new theories of their own.
2. Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles
Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed Kolb's model by focusing on how learning is used in practice, particularly at work. They identified four new learning styles: Activist, Pragmatist, Reflector, and Theorist – the kind of terms that we might naturally use to describe ourselves and our colleagues.
Honey and Mumford propose that we switch between these different approaches depending on our habits, strengths, preferences, and the demands of any given learning task. When we better understand our learning preferences, we can tackle new challenges in a way that makes learning easier, more enjoyable and more effective.
To learn more about Kolb, Honey and Mumford, and how to apply learning styles in practice, see our article on the 4MAT approach to learning.
3. Anthony Gregorc's Mind Styles
They made a distinction between concrete and abstract styles of thinking. They also divided the processing of information into sequential and random styles.
- Concrete perceptions happen through the senses, while abstract perceptions deal with ideas.
- Sequential thinking arranges information in a linear way, relying on calculation, logic, and cause and effect. A random approach is multidirectional and unpredictable.
According to this theory, we're all on a spectrum between concrete and abstract thinking, and between sequential and random ordering of our thoughts. And it's our individual strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas that determine our learning style.
4. Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic Learners (VAK)
Educational psychologist Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed three "modalities" of learning: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (movement and touch). These are often referred to simply as VAK.
Barbe was clear that everyone has strengths, weaknesses and preferences in each of the three modalities. The most effective learning utilizes all three in combination; the mix we achieve will depend on many factors, and it will likely change over time.
The VAK model was popular and widely applied. But it also became associated with a fixed outlook on learning. Many people took it to mean that learners can be classified by a single modality – as a "visual learner," for example – with little room for maneuver. And there was confusion over whether the VAK definition referred to someone's innate abilities, their personal preferences, or both (see Criticism of Learning Styles, below).
Neil Fleming extended VAK to VARK, exploring four modalities: Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. You can find out more about VAK and VARK in our article, VAK Learning Styles.
5. The Learning Styles Task Force
In the 1980s, American educationalists were keen to understand as much as possible about learning styles, so that they could help teachers to achieve the best results.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) formed a research "task force," and proposed additional factors that also affect our ability to learn. These include the structure of the study, the student's motivation, and even factors such as the time of day when the learning takes place.
They divided learning styles into three categories: Cognitive, Affective and Physiological.
- Cognitive refers to how we think, how we organize and retain information, and how we learn from our experiences.
- Affective refers to our attitudes and our motivations, and how they impact our approach to learning.
- Physiological includes a variety of factors based on our health, well-being, and the environment in which we learn.
The Index of Learning Styles™
There are also online questionnaires that can help you to identify your learning styles.
One of the most widely used is based on The Index of Learning Styles™, developed by Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman in the late 1980s.
Felder and Soloman’s questionnaire considers four dimensions, shown in figure 1, below. The theory is that we're all somewhere on a "continuum" for each of them. Neither end of the spectrum is "good" or "bad" – in fact, we'll benefit most if we can draw on them both.
Figure 1: Index of Learning Styles
From "The Index of Learning Styles," by Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman. Reproduced with permission from Dr Richard Felder. Information about the origins of the ILS, studies demonstrating its reliability and validity, and arrangements to license it for commercial use, can be obtained at www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/ILS-faq.htm. Find out more about learning styles and the ILS here.
Completing the free Felder and Soloman questionnaire shows where you fall on each continuum. You can then see where your habitual approach to learning is out of balance – and this puts you in a good position to do something about it (see Using Learning Styles to Improve Learning, below).
Criticisms of Learning Styles
Despite the popularity of learning styles, four key criticisms have been leveled against them:
1. The Science Isn't Strong Enough
We may express our preferences about how we learn, but they're not necessarily an accurate reflection of how our brains work. According to neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, the idea that we can be defined as purely visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners is "nonsense." Because, she says, "humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain."
2. Learning Styles Change
Attempts to "diagnose" someone's learning style once and for all will likely fail. As Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge explain in their book "Effective Learning," an individual's learning method will be different in different situations, and likely change over time.
3. Strengths and Preferences Are Not the Same
An influential piece of research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology revealed big differences between people's assessed strengths, and how they actually tackled learning tasks in practice. For example, someone who thinks they prefer to learn by reading may actually learn better when listening.
4. Teaching to Particular Learning Styles Doesn't Work
For psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, the idea that "students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles" is one of the "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology." This, he says, "encourages teachers to teach to students' intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses."
Using Learning Styles to Improve Learning
Despite the criticisms we've outlined, the ideas that underpin learning styles still have value.
We all learn in different ways, and we can all benefit from examining our strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, we can make the most of the aspects of learning that come naturally, and that we enjoy, and we can work on improving the areas that might hold us back.
The better we are at "metacognition" – "thinking about thinking" – the better we can plan our own studying, and that of others. We can see how to use prior knowledge as the foundation for new learning, and choose methods that best suit learners' needs.
Whatever type of learning you're involved in, you can use the key principles of learning styles to your advantage by following these three steps:
1. See the Big Picture
Choose theories, models and assessment scales, such as the ones we've outlined above, to build a rounded picture of your learning. Look at all the different reasons why you tend to tackle learning the way you do.
And, when you're in the process of learning, ask yourself why you're doing it in a particular way. Is it because it's the most effective for you, or simply because it's what you've always done?
Be wary of definitive judgements. Instead, consider different scenarios, and try to differentiate between how you like to learn, and how you learn best – in a variety of learning situations.
2. Identify Your Strengths
Highlight the types of learning that work best for you, and the conditions for learning that support them. For instance, you might be more of an active learner, who operates best in groups.
Keep doing the things that give the best results, to keep your learning fast and effective – and look for ways to improve them even more.
But also leave room to practice and strengthen any learning behaviors that you find more difficult.
3. Work on Your Weaknesses
You often can improve areas of your learning that are letting you down simply by using them more.
If you feel that you're not a visual learner, for example, get into the habit of reading the charts and diagrams in an article before grappling with the ideas in the text.
Or, if you're an independent learner by nature, make a point of involving others in your problem-solving from time to time.
Also, actively look for opportunities to try out new ways to learn. You might be surprised about what works – and about the new elements of learning that you enjoy.
Becoming more aware of your personal preferences helps you to appreciate other people's learning styles, too.
For example, when you're giving a presentation, chairing a meeting, or leading a training session, some learners will benefit from visual aids, while others will rely on listening to what you say, or on watching your body language. Back up abstract theories with real-life examples. Explain individual elements of a plan, as well as outlining the "big picture."
You can't always cater for everyone, but you can better engage your audience by allowing for a range of different learning styles.
"Learning styles" describes the different ways in which people learn, based on their individual strengths, their personal preferences, and other factors such as their motivations and their learning environment.
Various models have been developed to understand and describe learning styles, and to categorize learners by their favored approach.
Some popular theories about learning styles have been criticized on the basis that they are unscientific, inflexible, and ineffective in practice. Yet the core principle remains relevant: analyzing your approach to learning can help you to play to your strengths, develop any weaker areas, and create the best conditions for you for learning.
An understanding of learning styles can also help you to communicate with greater impact, and to support team members and co-workers to learn more effectively.
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