Learning Styles vs. Variety for Learning

You may have heard about learning styles and thought you should consider them in planning your course. However, you may also get overwhelmed knowing where to start. A Google search on ‘learning styles inventories’ will get over 110,000,000 hits.  An ERIC search on ‘learning styles inventories’ will get almost 1,000 results.

Five of the most commonly referred to learning style inventories are (“Learning Styles,” 2020):

  • Visual, Aural/ Auditory, Read/write, and Kinesthetic (Fleming)
  • Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation (Kolb)
  • Concrete Sequential, Abstract Random, Abstract Sequential, and Concrete Random (Gregorc)
  • Avoidant, Participative, Competitive, Collaborative, Dependent, and Independent (Grasha & Reichmann)
  • Activist, Reflector, Theorist, and Pragmatist (Honey & Mumford)

If you analyze these, they are actually measuring different things, so, according to these inventories, I could be a Visual, Concrete Experience & Sequence, Participative Pragmatist. And many articles will tell you that you should target different activities for each learning style. Yikes! But, many research articles have debunked the entire concept of learning styles. (An ERIC search on ‘learning styles myth’ will get 94 results and Google gives over 24,000,000.)

Situational Preferences

But we all know people are more attracted to some ways of learning than others. Instead of considering these as learning styles, I believe we should consider them learning preferences (ERIC gives over 7,000 hits for learning preferences). And we should also consider the situation.


  • If I am interested in a very specific topic such as how to move a rose bush or get Excel to do something specific:
    • I prefer to read a list of Googled instructions.
    • If that doesn’t work, I will try to watch a video, but usually at high speed.
    • If THAT doesn’t work, I will try to ask a forum or friend for help.
  • If I am interested in learning about web development or horticulture, much larger topics with less immediate application,
    • I prefer to listen to a series of presentations where I can ask questions (take a full course).
    • Or I will try to find an expert who can give general guidance and answer questions as I try applying the guidance.

In addition, some topics lend themselves to specific types of activities, such as labs. Flavin (2019) explains that sometimes the most obvious way to learn something is the best. Chick (2010) clarified:

In other words, it makes disciplinary sense to include kinesthetic activities in sculpture and anatomy courses, reading/writing activities in literature and history courses, visual activities in geography and engineering courses, and auditory activities in music, foreign language, and speech courses. Obvious or not, it aligns teaching and learning with the contours of the subject matter, without limiting the potential abilities of the learners.


  • To learn how molecules react to each other and different environments, a hands-on lab is frequently the best approach. Note that a lab is usually followed by a write-up from the students that explains their approach and results. This is at least two types of activities.
  • To learn to understand a foreign language, audial presentations may present a better approach than just reading. Frequently this includes multiple people providing the audio. However, reading the spoken word would also be beneficial. (Providing at least two activities.) And this should not be confused with being able to speak the foreign language, which would require additional and different types of activities.
  • To learn how different people respond during conflict, games might be appropriate. A single game will usually include a ‘debrief’, with discussions on how the learners felt, and discussions for options for reacting differently, and perhaps additional games. This is at least three types of activities.

Impact of Instructor Preferences

Sternberg (2011) stated that teachers “tend to overestimate the extent to which students match their own profile of learning and thinking styles. Teachers often teach in a way that reflects their own preferred styles of learning and thinking, not fully realizing that the styles that they prefer may not correspond to the styles that many of their students prefer.” This is often the case in higher ed where instructors teach the same way they prefer to learn – they theorize that they succeeded in college because, for example, they can listen to a lecture and therefore they don’t think of other methods as appropriate (or perhaps they don’t even think about it).  

Why Provide Variety

The theories on inclusivity, UDL, metacognition, and cognition all emphasize providing students with a variety of types of activities and assessments which provide different methods of learning. This helps students with different preferences. However, it also encourages ALL students to think more deeply about the subject as they think how to apply it to a different structure or talk it through with others. It can also help students strengthen their non-preferred learning approaches which can help them learn in more situations.

Options for Activities and Assessments

I encourage you to introduce multiple approaches to teaching your subject-matter and also allow students to show their learning using various assessment methods (tests, essays, presentations, demonstrations…). If concerned about students using what they consider the easiest assessment method, you could require that they use each method only once.

If you are struggling with identifying different activities, please see the lists at https://designgrp.online/c7/.

Afterall, variety is the spice of life. And as my friend, Dr. Attardo, says providing content in a variety of different ways may lead to unexpected discoveries for students, and perhaps you, too.


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