Learning styles and why there is more than one way to learn something

image of Mark Hobson

Mark Hobson, former lecturer in Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE), teaching Maths, Statistics and Engineering Principles, explains why he believes learning styles must be taught as part of teacher training and not become a ‘box-ticking’ exercise.



Reflection, reflection. We certainly know how to do this in our profession. I am the proud owner of a detailed CPD record where a whole raft of training, education and work experiences are examined and evaluated. Many colleagues have similar. Now retired, I have a chance to reflect with time on my hands, and there is one particular strand from my career I am fascinated by.


New to the profession, having left behind a military engineering career, I was, like all of us, keen, enthusiastic and perhaps a bit naïve. Determined to consider the learnt educational theory and constructs, then to apply them appropriately in the classroom, my chosen career path was initially very enjoyable. Unfortunately, the time taken on schemes of work and detailed lesson plans started to have an impact. Being guided by those whom I believed to be fully informed about best practice, I ploughed on.


Learning styles

As a course leader, I was invited to a student review; in attendance was the college Educational Psychologist. I had a chance to chat with him afterwards and mentioned in passing how brilliant it is to discern an individual’s learning style from the use of a simple questionnaire. His brow furrowed and his tone changed when he asked me how, after degree study, specialised training, experience and perhaps a one-hour interview with a student, it is only then when he could properly direct the best teaching and learning environment for that student? I was rocked back on my heels, but further discussion with this fine individual was the start of my journey to a more open-minded and objectively sceptical view of not just learning styles, but also other ideals that could be termed as popular education.

Staying focused on learning styles, the guidance received previously had directed me to literature which supported college and government policy, and inevitably what was wanted by the inspection regime. From that day on I sought out a broader range of literature and I discovered many high-level documents and commentaries which decried the nature of the aforementioned questionnaires and the pigeon-holing of students.

I determined to obtain some of my own evidence. The learning styles questionnaire was completed by approximately 50 students at the start of the college year and the same questionnaire completed by the same students at the end of their course. In an early example of action research, I found little or no correlation between the results. Yes, there are many variables to consider (I taught mathematics and statistics, so I know the pitfalls), so I could not draw any conclusions, except one; overall, the groups concerned had moved from a mostly visual learning style cohort to a mostly kinaesthetic learning style. Well, being as they were on a course with a lot of practical work, quelle surprise!


Reading students' capabilities

Nobody will be shocked to learn that the time spent on lesson plans was significantly reduced because, rightly or wrongly, I was only paying lip-service to the learning styles demands. I discovered I was not alone. Moving to another college I discovered the use of a five-minute learning styles questionnaire being used to inform planning across the whole site. With the eyes of the Educational Psychologist burning into my consciousness, I asked to see the evidence the college had gathered to demonstrate the benefits of such a learning styles strategy. I quickly received a private explanation from a senior staff member where the words ‘box-ticking’ were actually used. I moved on quickly.

Therefore, I ask myself, is learning styles (and thinking styles, emotional intelligence, and so on) necessarily wrong? My belief is that learning styles must be taught as part of teacher training, including the literature of differing assessments as to its efficacy. As teachers, we need to learn how to read our students’ capabilities in many ways and this is just one of the strategies available; we need to enlighten ourselves and our students regarding the differing ways we can learn. I have not been able to research this myself, but I am strongly of the view that college students will, throughout the range of topics taught on their courses, combined with their own innate ability to adapt and develop their ever-broadening skill set, constantly refine their learning styles. The worse thing we can do, particularly with young minds, is inculcate a belief there is only one way to learn something.

Finally, now being slightly less sceptical and more broad-minded, I do not have a problem with anything that comes to the profession in the form of popular education. We are professionals, very capable of absorbing many theories, constructs, initiatives and ideas into our very being. What we do not need to do is write everything down over and over again to prove we have considered what happens in our classroom; the danger is it all becomes another box to tick.

Mark Hobson, MIMA, MSET, QTLS