Is There a Connection Between Learning Styles and Preferences?

Start with a list of 12 familiar ways to learn course content: reading texts or other printed material; writing term papers, participating in group activities in class, doing major team projects, doing cases, taking multiple choice exams, giving presentations to the class, learning about different theories, doing practical exercises, solving problems, doing library research, or exercising a lot of creativity. Now hypothesize as to which learning style prefers which of these approaches to learning.

Over the years a variety of work has theorized about and empirically looked for connections between particular learning styles and learning preferences. Some of the theoretical work made a good case for certain connections, but empirically the connections look much weaker. In the work referenced below, they were all but non-existent.

This researcher used Kolb’s work on learning styles which, via a 12-item instrument, places learners in one of four categories: accommodators, who learn from hands-on experience and gut feelings; divergers, who excel at seeing multiple options and viewpoints; assimilators, who learning by putting information into concise logical forms; and convergers, who do best when they can find practical applications for ideas and theories. The question then is which of the 12 ways of learning course content would be preferred by each of these learning styles.

After using Kolb’s inventory to ascertain the learning styles of 201 students in eight different undergraduate management classes, the researcher used those scores to create four additional groupings that represented combinations of the four basic learning style categories. Each individual was asked to identify which of the 12 ways listed above they preferred to use to learn course content.

Only three of the 12 ways could statistically be linked to a learning style, confirming earlier research which also found weak relationships between assignment preferences and learning styles. Researcher Loo writes, “In this sample, all learning styles and types showed a dislike for writing major term papers, giving presentations to the class and doing library research, but showed a liking for doing practical exercises, solving problems and participating in groups.” (p. 107)

He theorizes that strong links between learning preferences and learning styles do not exist because of large individual differences within each learning style and type (the various combinations of the individual styles). Some of his statistical results support this conclusion.

As for implications of this finding, he recommends that faculty use a variety of learning methods in every class and that they encourage students to be receptive to different methods rather than equating particular approaches with their learning style. This recommendation builds on Kolb’s notion that no one learning style is better than another. Rather, skilled learners match styles to tasks and are not locked into their preferred style.

Reference: Loo, R. (2004). Kolb’s learning styles and learning preferences: Is there a linkage? Educational Psychology, 24 (1), 99-108.