An Update on Learning Styles/Cognitive Styles Research

Research on learning styles now spans four decades. The amount of work ebbs and flows with more flowing recently. Interestingly, work on learning styles continues to occur across a wide spectrum of disciplines, including many quite removed from psychology, the disciplinary home of many of the central concepts and theories that ground notions of learning style.

With research happening in so many different places on the disciplinary map, the collected body of work looks diffuse, fragmented and not particularly well connected. Nonetheless about some central issues, agreement exists. “There is general acceptance that the manner in which individuals choose to or are inclined to approach a learning situation has impact on performance and achievement of learning outcomes.” (p. 420)

About terminology there is wide disagreement. “The terms ‘learning style’, ‘cognitive style’ and ‘learning strategy’ are. . .frequently used imprecisely in theoretical and empirical accounts of the topic.” (p. 420) And that imprecision is reflected at the practitioner level as well where, for example, learning style and cognitive style are often used interchangeable. Some experts also do not make a distinction between them but when distinctions are made, they typically follow these lines. Cognitive style reflects “an individual’s typical or habitual mode of problem solving, thinking, perceiving and remembering.” (p. 420) Comparatively, learning style reflects “a concern with the application of cognitive style in a learning situation.” (pp. 420-421). The distinction is captured this way by another researcher: “Cognitive styles are the ways in which different individuals characteristically approach different cognitive tasks; learning styles are the ways in which individuals characteristically approach different learning tasks.” (p. 421)

Learning strategies are what students use when they study. They may select different strategies to deal with different learning tasks. When researchers make distinctions between learning styles and strategies, they are trying to sort through an old psychological argument about whether something is a trait or a state. Is a person’s learning style stable over time, something akin to a structure, therefore a trait, or does it change with experience or situation, something like a process, therefore a state? Some argue that what actually occurs is like the motherboard-software computer relationship. Learning style may have structure but that structure is responsive-the demands of a situation allow for change and adaptation. Those who make sharp distinctions between learning styles and learning strategies view learning style as a trait and see learning strategies as being what changes when students select between strategies.

A wide range of learning/cognitive style measures exist. The article referenced below lists, describes, and discusses 23 different instruments. The article’s purpose is not evaluation in the sense of trying to identify the best or ideal measure but to use description and comparison to help researchers and practitioners make better decisions about which measures to use when. That makes this an especially valuable resource — few (if any) other sources describe and reference this many different surveys, inventories, and other measures of learning and cognitive style.

The author references and describes an onion metaphor as a way of organizing how the various measures get at the different constructs considered part of learning and cognitive style. At the outer level, meaning they are most observable, at the same time they are most susceptible to influence, therefore making them the least stable measures are instruments that rate student’s “instructional preference” or their “preferred choice of learning environment.” (p. 423) Next in are instruments that measure how much social interaction students prefer during learning. The third and most stable layer of instruments seek to measure “information processing style.” The well-known Kolb instrument falls into this category. And finally are innermost measures of “cognitive personality style” like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.

This is a large and complex area of inquiry, not easily accessed by outsiders. But how students go about learning, the approaches they use and the results they net is such an important part of tailoring teaching effectiveness to meet learning needs. It is also an area that illustrates how nascent the scholarship of integration continues to be. Nonetheless, as an article that brings together, organizes, and characterizes the measurement instruments used both in research and practice, it makes a valuable contribution and is definitely a resource worth having in one’s file.

Reference: Cassidy, S. (2004). Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, and measures. Educational Psychology, 24 (4), 419-444.