There is much debate and academic research surrounding the styles of learning and how much we can relate or rely on them.
Understanding the common learning styles, interrogating whether learning can be categorised, and questioning how we can determine and best utilise styles of learning can help to transition from classrooms to the workplace and beyond.
What are the styles of learning?
According to The University of Western Australia (UWA) Business School Accounting Professor and Student Experience Director Phil Hancock, there are several learning styles, with the most common being learning by seeing (visual), listening (auditory), reading and writing, doing (kinaesthetic) and multimodal – a combination of all of the above.
With these various ways of learning identified and known to many, The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education Deputy Dean and Teacher Education Professor Larissa McLean Davies said what worked and didn’t work for individuals when acquiring knowledge was complex.
“We need to understand people learn at different paces and rates, and they can be supported by different pedagogies and different ways of engaging with material.”
“There’s been quite significant debate in research as to whether these are preferences or whether these styles are set in stone,” she said.
Ms McLean Davies said Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences has influenced debate about learning styles.
“The Gardner Theory of Multiple Intelligences comprises visual, linguistic, logical body, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic,” she said.
“This understanding of ‘intelligences’ is then often related to learning preferences or styles.
“However, there’s been significant research contesting the veracity of this in terms of improving student learning outcomes.”
How do we determine a learning style?
Mr Hancock said throughout his work, looking at the literature and psychology in particular, there was no compelling research to say associating a learning style with a learner achieved better outcomes.
“In other words, if someone is a visual learner and we try to teach them in visual ways to learn better, research in psychology suggests it doesn’t necessarily result in students performing better," he said.
“While some people may prefer a style, the reality is a multimodal or blended approach is more effective.”
According to Ms McLean Davies, characterising individuals as a particular type of learner can have unintended negative effects.
“There is some interesting work for us as educators because we may have some ways in which we prefer to learn, but a well-rounded education is ensuring we are able to access and learn in different ways,” she said.
“This may not be just the ways we naturally prefer to learn, and our preferences probably change over time as well.
“The bottom line is when we’re teaching and we’re really focused on the individual needs of the learner, we have to consider the best ways to support student’s learning to help them stay engaged, and to feel a sense of belonging and achievement.
“It’s really important teachers are clear in what the purpose is of the learning.”
Ms McLean Davies said from a very young age, it was important that young people were given the opportunity to reflect on their learning, as well as what helped them to learn.
“It’s that constant process of both being exposed to different ways of learning, having conversations with others and being able to reflect on how we’ve learnt, who has helped us learn, as well as what strategies and approaches will then build up how to learn and how we learn,” she said.
“It’s important to understand this continues to be a journey and we are not going to cut off really productive ways of learning because we may have identified early on that this is a particular preference.
“We grow and change as human beings, and a part of education is to open up opportunities for learning in ways that we might not anticipate."
Learning styles in the workplace
Mr Hancock said teaching with a blended method was a popular option not just in the university environment but also in corporate environments, particularly when training staff.
“In the workplace, time is important, so we try to condense the time for training and taking you out of the workplace,” he said.
“In corporate training, there’s been a big development in microcredentials because it doesn’t require too much amount of work time.
“With microcredentials, you might only have four hours, where you can have a quick introduction to cryptocurrency or whatever it might be.”
An exemplary example of multimodal corporate training is AIM WA’s Advanced Management Program, which is delivered in collaboration with UWA.
Mr Hancock said the multimodal approach could be seen in his accounting and finance game.
“This involves participants running a business,” he said.
“They’re actively doing (kinaesthetic) but they’re also learning about the impacts of different business decisions and outcomes in terms of financial and so on.
“This shows them how different strategies impact the bottom line and this activity works so well – the students absolutely love it.
“The evaluations are always very high across the board – it doesn’t matter whether you have 30 participants who might identify as visual or auditory learners, they all enjoy the activity even though they may enjoy different aspects; we benefit from a multimodal approach.”