Understanding Learning Styles Research and Instruments

Research on learning styles now spans four decades and occurs 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 and fragmented. Nonetheless, “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 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.

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 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.

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.

Excerpted from An Update on Learning Styles/Cognitive Styles Research, The Teaching Professor, Jan. 2005.