Learning Styles

See also: Lifelong Learning

Our page Learning Approaches explains some of the general approaches to teaching and learning.

This page builds on that to discuss two theories of learning styles: one based on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and the other based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

The idea of a learning style is that we all have a way in which we prefer to learn. For example, some people like to sit down and read about a subject while others prefer to get on and have a go at it. However, it’s not usually quite as clear-cut as this since preferences can change over time and as you are required to do different things at work and in life more generally.

However, an understanding of your preferred learning style may help you to find new ways of studying that better work for you.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle proposes that we all learn from our experience in a cyclical way.

People observe something happening and reflect on their observations. This experience and reflection is then incorporated into the theoretical knowledge that the person already possesses, or is supported by reading and training, building up a framework into which to fit their experience.

To complete the cycle, people then need to be able to practice the new skills they have learned.

Learning Styles - Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

Four Different Learning Styles

Kolb proposed this as a cycle. But there’s no question that while we all go through the cycle when we learn something, we also all prefer to start in different places and to spend more time on some aspects than others.

Two men called Peter Honey and Alan Mumford noticed this and built on Kolb’s work to propose the theory of learning styles.

Honey and Mumford identified four separate learning styles:

  • Activist
  • Pragmatist
  • Reflector
  • Theorist

Activists learn by doing.

They don’t want to hear what they should be doing, they want to dive in head-first and have a go.

Activists are likely to say:

Let’s just give it a go and see what happens
Can I try it out?

Pragmatists care about what works in the real world.

They aren’t interested in abstract concepts, they just want to know if it works.

Pragmatists are likely to say:

“How will it work in practice?”
“I just don’t see how this is relevant”

Reflectors like to think about what they’re learning.

They want to understand things thoroughly before they try them out.

Reflectors are likely to say:

“Let me just think about this for a moment”
“Don’t let’s rush into anything”

Theorists like to understand how the new learning fits into their ‘framework’ and into previous theories.

They’re likely to be uncomfortable with things that don’t fit with what they already know.

Theorists are likely to say:

“But how does this fit in with [x]?”
“I’d just like to understand the principles behind this a bit more”

In order to learn effectively, it’s important to be able to use all four styles, but most people have a preference for one or two.

Particularly common mixtures seem to include Activist/Pragmatist and Reflector/Theorist.

As it’s possible to learn and develop other styles, learning style preferences change over time - unlike other psychological assessments, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, which tend to stay remarkably consistent over time.

People often notice that their learning style has changed in response to different job demands or changes in their life.

VAK Model of Learning

One of the most common models of learning styles, taught to teachers and therefore familiar to many children, is based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

It describes learners as Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic and describes how you prefer to take in information.

Visual learners prefer to take in information by seeing and often process it in pictorial form. This means that they will often think or remember things in pictures and like to read, see graphs, and use symbols.

Auditory learners prefer to listen and take information in by what they hear. They favour lectures and discussions over reading.

Kinaesthetic learners learn by experience and particularly by tactile exploration of the world. They prefer to learn by experimentation. As most parents will testify, it’s not unreasonable to describe very young children as natural kinaesthetics, always wanting to feel something or put it in their mouths!

Use of Language:
Identifying the Way Someone Thinks

You can get clues to whether someone is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic from the kind of language that they use.

Visual thinkers will use phrases like “I see what you mean”, and “Let me get the picture straight in my mind”.

Auditory thinkers will be more likely to say “I hear what you’re saying”.

Kinaesthetics, on the other hand, will “feel your pain” and give you a hug.

Practical Implications of Learning Styles

There is no question that each of us has particular preferences for how we learn. There is equally little doubt that we all have slightly different things that we are good at, which may or may not be related to our learning style.

The original theory suggests that we should tailor learning experiences to fit our preferred learning style.

Unfortunately, there are a huge number of theories of learning styles out there, and very little evidence that teaching in a particular style is beneficial for a particular type of learner.

A major review study looked at the VAK model of learning styles, and suggested that in order to prove that it was useful in teaching, you would need to have studies that grouped students by learning style, and then taught part of each group in different ways. There would need to be teaching methods that worked best for each type of learner and did not work for the others. The review authors concluded that there had been almost no studies that did this.

The jury, therefore, is still out on whether teaching should be tailored to learning styles.

However, just because there is no evidence from a formal study does not mean that considering your learning style is not worthwhile.

  • A knowledge of learning styles may help you to identify different ways of learning that might be enjoyable or better for you. For example:

    • Activist ways of learning include brain-storming, practical experimentation, role plays, group discussion and problem-solving.
    • Pragmatist study styles include case studies and time to think about the practical applications of what you are learning.
    • Reflector-style learning includes spending time reading around a subject, and watching others try things out.
    • Theorist learning involves models and theories, with plenty of background information.

  • Understanding that there are different ways of learning, and that learning ideally happens in a cycle, helps you to vary your learning experience, and that is likely to improve your ability to learn and to retain information.

    If you find that there are particular types of teaching or learning that really do not suit you, do not be afraid to tailor your experience a bit. If you are considering a course, whether for long-term study or shorter-term learning, you may want to phone the person organising it and discuss the type of learning. It may be that you could avoid certain aspects of it, or the tutor may be able to suggest a more appropriate course for you.

  • If you are unable to choose your experiences, you can always try to adapt them

    For example, even if you struggle with sitting in a lecture, listening to someone talk, do not be tempted to abandon the experience! Instead, try making it into something different. Take notes, or draw a picture such as a mind-map to help you remember it more visually, or organise a discussion session afterwards over coffee with others to consider the learning in a different way.

    If your course is examination-based, you also need to think about how you are going to revise the subject matter. For example, you may like lectures, but will you want to revise by reading over your notes? Maybe you should ask your lecturers if you can record the lecture, or perhaps record your notes onto a digital voice recorder? Then you can play back your ‘notes’ afterwards and listen again to revise them.

Learn and Adapt

The science of learning styles is still a bit hazy, and there is a distinct lack of evidence about whether teaching and learning should be tailored rigidly to suit learning styles.

There is, however, no doubt that varying learning experiences helps everyone to stay interested, teachers and pupils alike.

Even if there are elements of your chosen course which do not particularly suit you, bear with it. Different experiences will broaden your ability to learn in different ways, which is always going to be helpful.