Learning styles

One area that interests me is the range of different strategies and preferences that people use when learning – what are often known as learning styles.  There are numerous classifications of these, notably VARK (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic) which we’ve found useful with students in higher education – http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp includes a questionnaire which is valuable for self-reflection among students, the Honey and Mumford classification which is popular in management development – see http://www.peterhoney.com/ – and also approaches deriving from Howard Gardner’s ideas on multiple intelligence – http://www.miresearch.org/mi_theory.html is a good summary of these. I note that learning styles based on Gardner’s classifications are discussed at my children’s primary school as early as year 3 (age 7-8).

Yet learning styles are controversial – attend a conference about education and some people will tell you that they don’t believe in them, others that they are counterproductive.  Stephen Downes is a prolific blogger on educational issues and his comments at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=48662 reflect the strength of feeling that the topic arouses.

Personally, I don’t know how much students’ learning preferences are influenced by context, and how much they change in the time that they spend at university.  I certainly don’t know how much these preferences are innate, and how much we can, or should, train students to change them; that seems like an issue that can’t be addressed without taking on the entire nature-versus-nurture discussion.  But I do know that students come in to our university with preferences that are qualitatively different, and that understanding these variations can, in a small way, help us to reach more of those students more effectively than we would otherwise.

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