Interest in explaining variation in educational outcomes and interest in discovering attributes of individual learners that would allow educators to design learning opportunities to maximise the attainment of each and every student have a long history. Among the currently most popular means for discerning and classifying individual difference are theories of 'learning styles'. 'Learning styles' as a concept is widely endorsed, geographically, across educational sectors and in many other domains of human activity. This paper explores the current state of the learning styles field and the evidence for it as a worthwhile and effective basis for pedagogical decision-making.
With a history equally as long as the interest in individual differences that might predict educational outcomes is the research enterprise that has shown that teaching tailored to a child's supposed individual attributes has little to offer in the design of effective learning opportunities. As Bracht (1970, p. 627) noted: 'Although there is an increasing interest in the topic of ATI [Aptitude-Treatment Interactions] among educational psychologists, very little empirical evidence has been provided to support the concept'. Glass (1970, p. 210) proposed that he knew of no other 'statement that has been confirmed so many times by so many people'. A few years later Cronbach and Snow (1977, p. 6) also observed that 'well-substantiated findings regarding ATI are scarce'. More recently, meta-analyses by Hattie (2009) demonstrated that individualising instruction is, at best, an inefficient strategy for increasing student attainment (mean effect size for all interventions =.40; effect size for individualising instruction =.23).
Defining learning styles
While the term 'learning style' has common-sense appeal, an investigation of the field reveals that it is characterised by considerable conceptual confusion and the lack of any generally accepted definition of what these 'styles' may be. As Cassidy noted (2004, p. 440) 'there exist almost as many definitions as there are theorists in the area'. A multitude of models exists, vying for prominence in a very crowded field. Coffield and colleagues (2004) reported finding 71 different theories of learning style in current circulation in the UK. Models are also based on a dizzying variety of perceptual, cognitive and physiological factors, including a preference for working alone or in groups, in the evening in the morning, when the temperature is high or low, while eating or otherwise, and so on. Not surprisingly, in his overview of learning styles theory, Cassidy described the field as 'fragmented and disparate' (2004, p. 419).
A few prominent examples of theories in current use include Kolb's (1984) four-way typology (converger; diverger; assimilator; accommodator); Mills's (2002) four-way typology, based on the work of Anthony F. Gregorc and Kathleen A. Butler (concrete sequential; abstract random; abstract sequential; concrete random), and the Felder-Silverman (1988) four-dimension model. In Australian schools, the most popular models are those that derive from Fleming's VARK theory, which originally divided learners into four but now most commonly uses three groups: visual, auditory or tactile/kinaesthetic. One is tempted to note that these categories are reassuringly concrete, unlike the others already mentioned, and apparently discernible by simply observing children.
Attempts to discover commonality across the many models are rare but the results of those efforts that have been made lead to the conclusion that they are not accessing the same constructs. Ferrell performed factor analytic studies on four commonly used instruments: the Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scales, Kolb Learning Styles Inventory, Dunn Learning Style Inventory, and Johnson Decision-Making Inventory and concluded that 'the instruments were clearly not measuring the same thing' (1983, p. …