MET:Learning Styles in Adult Pedagogy

From UBC Wiki

This page originally authored by Steven Siebold (2011)

Learning style has been defined as “the way in which each learner begins to concentrate on, process, absorb, and retain new and difficult information (Dunn and Dunn, 1999 as cited in Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008 p. 107).” Cognitive style is closely related to learning style and has been defined as “consistent individual differences in preferred ways of organizing and processing information and experience” (Allinson and Hayes, 1996, p. 119). The terms are used synonymously for the purpose of this entry. Learning or cognitive style inventories or tools seek to describe, categorize and differentiate those methods to better help understand how different people approach learning. The field of learning styles (LS) has been extensively studied and two groups have competed thorough reviews of LS relevant to adult education (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004; Pashler et al., 2008)


File:Families of Learning Styles.JPG
Families of Learning Styles (Coffield et al., 2004 p. 24), used with permission

LS have been categorized into five families and 13 major models, with 71 tools identified overall (Coffield et al., 2004). Additional tools were considered, but were described as minor variations of those presented. The five families were placed on a continuum that classified the different models based on the dominant principles underlying them (see fig 1). The variety in approach to developing learning style inventories highlights the complexity of the field.


Learning style tools have value, particularly for promoting self-awareness in students to help them to select the best learning approach from a number of possibilities for a given learning task (Coffield et al., 2004). A conversation between the supervisor and student about learning styles may enrich the learning experience of the student and open the eyes of the teacher in terms of how best to support the student (Coffield et al., 2004). The best teaching method will vary among individual learners and will depend partially on previous learning and understanding. (Pashler et al., 2008)

Concerns and limitations

The divisions in the learning styles field have been caused in part by the financial rewards offered by the commercial application of the tools; the desire to maintain ownership of intellectual property has decreased collaboration among authors of different models and led to claims of effectiveness not supported by the literature (Coffield et al., 2004). The relevance of learning styles in the classroom setting has also been challenged because of the variety of learning methods represented in a group of students, making it difficult for a single teacher to provide individualized instruction around personal preferences of each student (Coffield et al., 2004). Because of the lack of sound psychometric data to support individual tools, one group concluded that LS do not have proven value in learning environments; they disputed the validity of what they termed as "meshing hypothesis - (which states) presentation should mesh with the learner’s own proclivities (Pashler et al., 2008 p. 108)” – that they postulate is central to the claims of many learning inventories. Pashler et al. (2008) did not dispute that individuals have preferences for the way that information is presented to them, but stated rather that catering to the preference of the learner has not been proven to positively affect learning outcomes as measured by standardized testing. This represents a narrow definition of learning, so teachers may want to consider the value of cognitive styles using their own views on learning.

Tools best supported by scientific evidence

The Learning Styles tools best supported by scientific evidence were the "Cognitive Styles Index" by Allinson and Hayes, Apter’s "Motivational Style Profile" and the "Inventory of Learning Styles" by Vermunt (Coffield et al., 2004). The "Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test" was also noted as partially meeting a standard of evidence required to “validate (instructional) interventions based on learning styles” (Pashler et al., 2008, p. 108)”. The literature reviewed did not provide compelling evidence for the validity and reliability of learning styles in contributing to measurable improvement in academic performance of adult learners.

Coffield et al. (2004) recognized Kolb's Learning Styles Model and Experiential Learning Theory as one of the most popular tools, but reported poor psychometric properties for that instrument.

Specific example of LS used in adult pedagogy

Alberta Health Services, 2011 used with permission

Learning styles inventories have been used to predict satisfaction of preceptors and learners in health care settings. The preceptor acts as supervisor and teacher to a health care student who completes a clinical placement within a health care facility as part of her formal education curriculum. It is during these placements that students in health care disciplines apply theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom to real world patient care. Several groups have considered LS in this context (Vaughn and Baker, 2008; Brunt and Kopp, 2007; Handley, 1982). All studies reported a positive correlation between satisfaction of both members of the dyad and matching their learning styles. The intent of these studies was not to use learning styles inventories to support improved learning by students directly, but to assist in improving the satisfaction with the professional relationship on the part of both the student and teacher. This may enhance the learner's engagement in the clinical placement which ultimately may improve her performance in that setting.

Overarching recommendation regarding incorporating LS into adult pedagogy

A recurring theme in learning styles literature in terms of the best approach in incorporating learning styles into teaching strategies is to “maximize learning opportunities of their students and staff” (Entwistle as cited in Coffield, 2004, p. 132). Pashler et al. (2008, p. 117) expressed a similar idea: “Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options and aspirations open for our students, our children and ourselves. Towards this end we think the primary focus should be on indentifying and introducing the experiences, activities and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning”. Although this group intended this quote to refute the value of learning styles, it can, in fact be interpreted to be supportive of them if one believes that awareness of personal learning preferences may help individuals identify their strengths and weaknesses as students. The concept was eloquently summed up by an adult learner as presented on a learning styles website: “Teach me my most difficult concepts in my preferred style. Let me explore my easiest concepts in a different style. Just don't teach me all the time in your preferred style and think I'm not capable of learning" (Carlson as cited in Fleming, 2010).

Stop Motion Video

ETEC510 Wiki Stop Motion Learning Styles in Andragogy by Allan Bingham

ETEC510 Wiki Stop Motion Learning Styles in Andragogy by Joyce Chan


Allinson, C.W., Hayes, J. (1996) "The cognitive style index: a measure of intuition-analysis for organisational research", Journal of Management Studies. 33(1), 119–135.

Brunt, B.A., Kopp, D.J. Impact of preceptor and orientee learning styles on satisfaction: A pilot study. Journal for Nurses in Staff Development. 2007 (23), 36-44.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre, U.K. Retrieved from

Families of Learning Styles (2004) [Figure describing the attributes of major families of learning styles]. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre, U.K. Retrieved from

Fleming, N. (2009) VARK: A guide to learning styles. Retrieved from

Handley, P. (1982) Relationship between supervisor’s and trainee’s cognitive styles and the supervision process. Journal of Counseling Psychology.(29), 508-515.

Learning styles (2011) [Cartoon depicting a student discussing her learning style with her instructor]. Google Images (in the public domain). Retrieved from

Pashler, H., McDaniel M., Rohrer D., Bjork R. (2008) Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Sciences in the Public Interest. 9(3), 105-119.

Preceptor (2011) [Picture representing an interaction between a preceptor and student in a health care setting]. Alberta Health Services Faces of Health Care. Retrieved from an internal Alberta Health Services Website.

External links

Free online learning style tools

Please note the validity and reliability of these tools was not assessed or reported in the literature

The VARK Learning Style Questionnaire:

Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire:

UBC Learning Styles Self Assessment:

Online learning style tools requiring payment

Apter’s "Motivational Style Profile":

Kolb Learning Style Inventory:

Youtube link

Youtube link for the visual learner: {{#ev:youtube| hqQ56IBNeJw}}