Learning Styles are for the individual, not group
NOTE: I left this comment in eLearn Magazine's, Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners by Guy Wallace. Since it wiped out most of my formatting, such as comments and quotation marks, I am posting it here for better readability.
Perhaps one of the best papers on learning styles is Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone's, Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review (PDF). While the paper does dismiss some types of learning styles and the importance that the recognized learning styles actually have when it comes to learning, it does leave a lot of questions opened.
One of the most profound statements in the paper, at least to me, is (p68):
“just varying delivery style may not be enough and... the unit of analysis must be the individual rather than the group.”
That is, when you analyze a group, the findings often suggest that learning styles are relative unimportant, however, when you look at an individual, then the learning style often distinguishes itself as a key component of being able to learn or not. Thus those who actually deliver the learning process, such as teachers, instructors, or trainers and are responsible for helping others to learn see these styles and must adjust for them, while those who design for groups or study them see the learning styles as relative unimportant.
In the next paragraph, the paper continues with this statement:
“For each research study supporting the principle of matching instructional style and learning style, there is a study rejecting the matching hypothesis’ (2002, 411). Indeed, they found eight studies supporting and eight studies rejecting the 'matching' hypothesis, which is based on the assumption that learning styles, if not a fixed characteristic of the person, are at least relatively stable over time. Kolb's views at least are clear: rather than confining learners to their preferred style, he advocates stretching their learning capabilities in other learning modes.”
While many find this as a reason to dismiss learning styles, I find it quite intriguing in that why do learning styles play a key component is some situations or environments, but not others? I think part of the answer is within this finding—a study that was conducted in the U. S. and Israel, found that when students' learning styles matched the teaching method they performed both more effectively and efficiently. But the authors of the paper seem too readily to dismiss it as the end the paragraph with this statement—“But even this conclusion needed to be qualified as it applied only to higher-order cognitive outcomes and not to basic knowledge.” (p67)
It seems logical that higher-order cognitive outcomes need more individual support (in this case matching the learning style the the correct learning strategy) than basic knowledge. Thus in some situations learning styles are important, while in others they are not.
Finally, in the paper's conclusion the authors note (P132-133) that:
“Despite reservations about their model and questionnaire (see Section 6.2), we recognise that Honey and Mumford have been prolific in showing how individuals can be helped to play to their strengths or to develop as all-round learners (or both) by means, for example, of keeping a learning log or of devising personal development plans; they also show how managers can help their staff to learn more effectively.”
Thus the main take-away that I get from the paper if that if you are an instructor, manager, etc. who has to help the individual learners, then learning styles make sense. On the other hand, if you are an instructional designer or someone who directs her or his efforts at the group, then learning styles are probably not that important. Note that I am both a trainer and a designer so perhaps this is why my take-away makes sense to me.