Learning Styles, Universities, and ITT

Sharks have teeth that slope inward; once they get their jaws on something, it isn’t getting away. I don’t think @tombennett71 has teeth that slope inwards (although, like me, he grew up in a land and era of pragmatic dentistry, far from the pearly white, braced and straightened paradise of the Home Counties) but there is no doubt that he has had his teeth into Learning Styles for some time now, and he’s not letting go. Mostly this is a good thing but I think the recent little flurry of tweets about the failings of university-led ITT involved tarring us with a rather broad brush.

So I thought it might be useful to flag up a few things, partly to try to explain why this is (or has been) an issue in ITE, and partly to explain why Googling “x university” + “learning styles” is a poor way of finding out about what is happening.

The people working on PGCE courses in universities have a mixture of backgrounds. Nearly all will be qualified and experienced teachers. Some will have moved straight from a school job into a ‘Teaching Fellow’ post – one with no research element to their contract – and some will be Lecturers or more senior academics with both a teaching and a research role. There is, I think, an assumption that we all have a lot of time to stay abreast of broad swathes of academic literature but for most of us that is not really any more true than it is for a teacher or senior leader in school. Those with a research element to their contracts of course have an obligation to be right up-to-date with their narrow area of expertise but that’s quite time consuming; Teaching Fellows have a full-time job teaching and looking after trainee teachers, and probably other students.

And so what happens in universities is, in my limited experience, the same as what happens in schools. We draw on our personal experience, the reading we have done, and everything else we pick up along the way – particularly from colleagues – to plan and teach as well as we can. Learning styles was so ubiquitous in schools that, without enough critical thought, it was bound to end up in some teacher training. Hopefully we have all learned our lesson about taking on ideas that sound convincing without actually checking the supporting evidence, and will pay more attention to critical analysis, such as Sharp, Bowker and Byrne (2008) – from colleagues at @BGUlincoln (ironically), @UniofExeter and @SotonEd. However, the rush to embrace Mindset in schools suggests ResearchEd, and anyone in a position to influence schools’ thinking, have their work cut out.

Direct confirmation from recent trainee teachers is one thing; trawling Google for university webpages that mention learning styles is quite another. If you Google “Soton learning styles” you will find this page on ‘picking your profile’. Feel free to read (if you must) but it is a classic example of the genre. How can we square this with a research-informed PGCE? Dig a bit deeper and you’ll see this has nothing to do with the Education School, never mind the PGCE. This is not a primary or secondary school where the SLT oversees all teaching and learning. The Education School makes up less than 2% of the university. Holding us accountable for this webpage, or implying it affects our PGCE, is like holding the literacy lead in a primary school responsible for the way literature is taught in a secondary that happens to be in the same MAT.

For what it’s worth, here is our position statement on learning styles. If anyone else wants to make use of, or adapt it (or offer constructive criticism in the comments), then provided due credit is given, you are welcome to do so.

University of Southampton Education School Initial Teacher Education: Position Statement on Learning Styles

As a leading school of education, with an internationally recognised research profile, and a long and successful history of initial teacher education, we are committed to ensuring that our teacher education programmes are fully research-informed and reflect current best practice.

There has been considerable confusion, and a significant amount of poor practice, associated with learning styles. In particular, the matching hypothesis suggests learning is enhanced when the mode of delivery is matched to the preferred learning style of a student. This is a widespread belief but is not supported by the evidence (Pashler, et al., 2009). There is a plethora of different, disconnected models, many based on incoherent theory and/or tests which are neither reliable nor valid (Coffield, et al., 2004) but it is the Visual, Aural, Read/Write and Kinaesthetic model (VARK), often simplified to Visual, Aural, Kinaesthetic (VAK) which is typically encountered in school settings (Sharp, et al., 2008) to the potential detriment of children.

However, there is evidence that presenting new ideas in several different ways is helpful to learners. This is not because of simplistic differences in learning styles but because learners benefit from multiple opportunities to relate new ideas to their existing knowledge (Nuthall, 2007), and benefit from multiple modes of presentation. This is particularly true when information is presented in both verbal and graphical form at the same time (Pashler, et al., 2007).

It is therefore our policy in initial teacher education at the University of Southampton Education School to avoid presenting simple learning styles models (including VAK), and the matching hypothesis, as useful. Since the VAK model and the matching hypothesis are still so prevalent, this misconception should be actively addressed. However it is appropriate to encourage teachers to present new ideas in a variety of ways that are appropriate for the material (Willingham, 2005) and to emphasise the particular strategy of combining verbal and graphical formats where relevant.

However, it is also recognised that learning styles, now more often referred to as cognitive styles, is an area of active research. More sophisticated models are being developed which better reflect the evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience (Kozhevnikov, et al., 2014) and it is clear that there are differences in the way in which people approach problems and learning opportunities. Evidence suggests that, whilst different people will have different capacities (Kohzenikov, 2007), most will adapt their approach depending on the situation, and most people can benefit from developing their ability to apply different approaches to best meet a particular challenge (Zhang, et al., 2012). This is often described as a meta-cognitive skill. Work has been carried out to try to provide a framework for teachers to make use of this understanding (Evans & Waring, 2015) but our view is that this is not yet adequately tested in classroom settings, and may not be simple enough to be of practical benefit to teachers working in complex school and college settings. In accordance with our commitment to draw on the best available evidence from research, we will keep this situation under review.

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, LSDA.
Donker, A. et al., 2014. Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, Volume 11, pp. 1-26.
Evans, C. & Kozhevnikov, M., 2013. Styles of practice in higher education: Exploring approaches to teaching and learning. London: Routledge.
Evans, C. & Waring, M., 2012. Application of styles in educational instruction and assessment. In: L. F. Zhang, R. J. Sternberg & S. Rayner, eds. The Handbook of Intellectual Styles. New York: Spring, pp. 297-330.
Evans, C. & Waring, M., 2015. Understanding Pedagogy: Developing a Critical Approach to Teaching and Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.
Kohzenikov, M., 2007. Cognitive styles in the framework of modern psychology: toward an integrated framework of cognitive style. Psychological Bulletin, Volume 133, pp. 464-481.
Kozhevnikov, M., Evans, C. & Kosslyn, S., 2014. Cognitive Style as Environmentally Sesitive Individual Differences in Cognition: A Modern Synthesis and Applications in Education, Business, and Management. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(1), pp. 3-33.
Nuthall, G., 2007. The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.
Pashler, H. et al., 2007. Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, Washington DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Brork, R., 2009. Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), pp. 105-119.
Sharp, J. G., Bowker, R. & Byrne, J., 2008. VAK or VAK-uous? Toward the trivialisation of learning and the death of scholarship. Research Papers in education, 23(3), pp. 293-314.
Willingham, D. T., 2005. Visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic instruction? American Educator, Volume Spring 2005, pp. 31-35.
Zhang, L. F., Sternberg, R. J. & Rayner, S., 2012. Handbook of intellectual styles: Preferences in cognition, learning and thinking. New York: Springer.


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