Coffield’s critique of learning styles

One very significant criticism of learning styles was raised by Frank Coffield, of the Institute of Education, a few years ago.

The report can be downloaded free as a PDF by going to https://crm.lsnlearning.org.uk/user/order.aspx?code=041540

Before going further I should note that I don’t know enough about psychology to comment on the soundness of the report’s criticisms of the theoretical foundations of learning styles, and note that some of the approaches discussed in the report have a broader application than purely to learning, notably the Myers-Briggs type indicator which is a very widely used psychometric classification.

Even though I tend to favour taking account of learning styles, while Coffield is critical of them, I found a lot to agree with in the report.  I think learning styles should be treated with caution, I’m deeply suspicious of any instruments for assessing styles which are so precious that they can only be administered by somebody with specific qualifications, and I’m aware that students could feel restricted by being classified – if they’re classed as favouring one learning approach they could become blind to anything delivered in a way which suits a different style.

Nevertheless I have found that getting students to review their learning styles can be a useful reflective tool, particularly when they first start at university.  It encourages students to think about their learning process, and to realise that their colleagues might have dramatically different preferences in how they participate in their course.  In a small way, it helps to smooth the transition from school to university.  I’d like to think that would boost student satisfaction in a measurable way, through more favourable responses to course evaluations, and lower dropout rates, but without a controlled experiment where you’d keep everything else the same and only introduce a learning style analysis you can never prove it. 

Coffield and colleagues are right to warn of the danger that using learning styles could lead to students being pigeon-holed as particular types.  But that should just be a warning; in general, recognising one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and competences makes sound educational sense.  Applying the report’s logic and taking it to extremes, you wouldn’t praise or reward a student for being good at maths, lest they became typecast as somebody with numeric strengths.  So of course students should recognise that they can change, and that they don’t necessarily fit the archetypes implicit in particular learning styles, but they could still gain something through awareness of their preferences.

Moreover people use all sorts of different approaches to assert their own individuality.  If it’s acceptable for somebody’s self-image including being a tennis player, or liking the music of J S Bach, or driving a Mini, then surely it’s acceptable for somebody to include being an ENTP in Myers-Briggs terms, or a visual learner, as part of their self-image if that works for them.

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2 Responses to “Coffield’s critique of learning styles”

  1. education2 Says:

    education2…

    […]Coffield’s critique of learning styles « Martin Rich's Blog[…]…

  2. charles h heller phd Says:

    charles h heller phd…

    […]Coffield’s critique of learning styles « Martin Rich's Blog[…]…

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