Educational Speculation: Learning Styles

Some educrats had a hunch that different students learned differently and, voila, we have a theory: four different learning styles and teachers better get with it or our kids/students will be left behind.

A big hogwash on that speculation-based, non-evidence based, theory. It’s Labor Day — and these educrats needed to do more labor to support their speculations.


The notion of the existence of learning styles – that people are “hard-wired” to learn best in a certain way – has been around since the 1970s. There are now more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood to higher education to business.

The theory is that if a teacher can provide learning activities and experiences that match a student’s supposed learning style, learning will be more effective.

Probably the best known are the “auditory” (learning best by hearing), “visual” (learning best through images), and “kinesthetic” (learning best through touch and movement) typologies of learners.

Learning styles has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops. Some schools have spent many thousands of dollars assessing students using the various inventories….

The authors of an extensive review of the research evidence for learning styles concluded:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.

…   By all means, let’s cater for individual differences in student learning. This is best achieved through knowing our students as learners and people, thorough on-going assessment, constructive feedback and targeted, evidence-based teaching strategies.

In the world of manufacturing, a product found to be dangerous is generally recalled. The time has come for a general recall on the use of learning styles in teaching.

Here’s an example:

Most learning-style theorists have settled on four basic styles. Our own model, for instance, describes the following four styles:

  • The Mastery style learner absorbs information concretely; processes information sequentially, in a step-by-step manner; and judges the value of learning in terms of its clarity and practicality.
  • The Understanding style learner focuses more on ideas and abstractions; learns through a process of questioning, reasoning, and testing; and evaluates learning by standards of logic and the use of evidence.
  • The Self-Expressive style learner looks for images implied in learning; uses feelings and emotions to construct new ideas and products; and judges the learning process according to its originality, aesthetics, and capacity to surprise or delight.
  • The Interpersonal style learner,  like the Mastery learner, focuses on concrete, palpable information; prefers to learn socially; and judges learning in terms of its potential use in helping others.

Learning styles are not fixed throughout life, but develop as a person learns and grows. Our approximate breakdown of the percentages of people with strengths in each style is as follows: Mastery, 35 percent; Understanding, 18 percent; Self-Expressive, 12 percent; and Interpersonal, 35 percent (Silver and Strong 1997).

Most learning-style advocates would agree that all individuals develop and practice a mixture of styles as they live and learn. Most people’s styles flex and adapt to various contexts, though to differing degrees. In fact, most people seek a sense of wholeness by practicing all four styles to some degree. Educators should help students discover their unique profiles, as well as a balance of styles.

Here’s another example of the theory at work:

There are currently seven “Learning Styles“:

  • Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Your student will most likely not possess one style exclusively but you may be able to see patterns in their learning preferences. For example, a student who is visual may also be a very social and verbal learner and prefers to learn especially difficult topics using their primary skills.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.