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Definition: Learning Styles from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

A subset of cognitive styles that refer to the cognitive structure and processes within individuals in order to make sense of and acquire knowledge and skills within a learning situation. In addition, learning styles also relate to learner preferences for and perceptions of processing information but do not necessarily relate to processing ability. These preferences assume that each individual knows how he or she learns best. Learning styles are said to relate to heredity, prior experiences, and the current demands of the learning environment. Several of the theories related to learning styles are based on Jungian psychology. Most learning-style instruments are self-report measures.


Summary Article: Learning Styles from Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education

Learning styles refers to a theoretical perspective that explains individual and group patterns of propensities and preferences for particular approaches and strategies for learning, information processing, and particular habits of mind related to ways of making sense of the world, approaching particular tasks, problem-solving, and communicating with others. These approaches and strategies have resulted from everyday experiences over time, usually initiated within a family, an associated community, or cultural group. The terms learning style and cognitive style are often used interchangeably; however, cognitive style refers to habitual ways of organizing and processing information, and is one component of a learning style. The learning style perspective supports the application of cognitive style in learning situations by taking into consideration the sociohistorical context for the origin of mental processes and the development of these processes within and through social and cultural practices.

Different models of learning styles present a variety of ways of identifying, describing, and categorizing preferences and propensities for particular approaches to tasks, problem-solving, and learning situations, while also addressing a wide range of social and psychological processes. The preferred instruments for determining learning style proclivities for particular individuals and groups are self-report inventories and questionnaires. The models and instruments used for identifying learning styles are determined by the purpose and context for the application of such information. For example, the approach to the application of information on learning styles varies among K-12 classroom learning environments, undergraduate and graduate study, and specific roles and functions in the workplace.

Historical Perspective

The learning style perspective gained momentum during the 1970s as a way to explain individual and group differences among populations in public schools, as well as the underperformance of certain populations. This perspective has been linked to Gordon Allport's work in which he described the personality trait theory. According to this theory, individuals develop habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion that distinguish them from others. The cognitive styles perspective is similar in purporting that individuals develop habitual patterns of problem-solving, thinking, perceiving, and remembering. The learning styles perspective is the application of habitual patterns of cognition to problem-solving and task completion. Many scholars contend, however, that recent conceptualizations of learning styles are directly linked to Herman A. Witkin and associates' concept of psychological differentiation that introduced the concepts of field-dependence and field-independence, which are based on an individual's ability, when tested by means of an instrument such as the Embedded Figures Test or the Group Embedded Figures Test, to distinguish an object from the background field in which it is positioned. Manuel Ramirez and Alfredo Castañeda employed cross-cultural psychology to bring attention to the cultural context as part of differential and cognitive theory in psychology. This theory supported a focus on cognitive differences and diversity in approaches to learning among individuals and groups based on culture, experience, and socialization practices.

Explaining Differences in Academic Performance

What causes the difference in patterns of learning and learning outcomes between one group of students and another? Proponents of the learning style perspective argue that traditional school practices are a cultural construct that emanates from the experiences, values, practices, and perspectives of the culture in power, and are designed to serve the purposes of this particular group. Those who have been socialized into the practices and values of the culture of power are more likely to develop the learning preferences, mental processes, habits of mind, and worldview that support learning from traditional school practices. Others, it is argued, have been socialized in different ways and have different learning preferences, mental processes, habits of mind, and worldviews that are not supported by traditional school practices. Differential socialization results in variations in academic learning outcomes in school situations employing traditional instructional practices.

Criticism of the Learning Style Perspective

Critics of the learning style perspective pose two primary arguments. The first is that the instruments for identifying learning styles are flawed because the results are not valid and trustworthy. The empirical evidence varies by instrument, with some instruments being more valid and trustworthy than others, and some receiving mixed results across several studies. The second argument is that because there is little evidence that identifying and linking learning styles to instruction actually benefits students, the practice has the potential to do more harm than good, and can result in stereotyping underserved students based on culture and experiential background. This stereotyping can have both academic and social consequences. These critics argue that teaching to a stereotypical learning style can limit students' access to learning opportunities and inhibit their academic progress. Learning styles grouping can isolate students on the basis of culture and experiential backgrounds. Stereotyping regularly occurs from many sources in the society and frequently has a negative impact on the academic and social well-being of under-served students, often resulting in their placement in lower-track classes and denying them access to more desirable academic opportunities. Learning style grouping actually counters the effects of these stereotypes, despite placing students into groups that, without deeper assessment, appear to be based upon stereotypes. There has been less criticism of the use of learning styles grouping in the workplace, where the purpose of improving performance is quite similar to its purpose in academic settings.

See also

Achievement Gap, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Culture, Diversity, and Education, Diversity-Responsive Schools, Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Education, Historical Perspectives, Multiple Intelligences, Race and Education

Further Readings
  • Allport, G. W.(1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Desmedt, E.; Valcke, M. Mapping the learning styles “jungle”: An overview of the literature based on citation analysis. Educational Psychology, 24, (4) : 445-464.
  • Ramirez, M.; Castañeda, A.(1974). Cultural democracy, bicognitive development, and education. New York: Academic Press.
  • Witkin, H. A.; Dyk, R. B.; Faterson, H. F.; Goodenough, D. R.; Karp, S. A.(1962). Psychological differentiation. New York: John Wiley.
  • Hollins, Etta R.
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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