Learning Preferences

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When it comes to learning, we all have preferences that are influenced by the ways in which we think - our personalities, our backgrounds and our culture. For example, some students may prefer participating in group practical tasks or projects rather than reading long research articles and writing long essays on their own. In an attempt to capture and make sense of some of this, theories and models around learning styles and preferences are explored in this topic. The concept of the expert learner and how to develop this attribute is introduced.

What are learning styles and preferences?

Learning styles can be defined as the way in which an individual generally responds to specific learning situations and prefers to process different forms of information. Often, learning styles are regarded as the preferred methods for undertaking learning, for example, reader/writer, audio/visual etc., but this is a narrow definition. Learning preferences as a term is generally considered to take in a broader set of factors than just methods as they also take into account aspects that might impact on learning, such as: the environment and where and when students prefer to do their learning. For example, a student may prefer to work alone at home, and do her assignments late in the evening when the family has gone to bed. Another student may thrive in group situations and only wish to study during the day on-campus. In a nutshell, learning styles and preferences help to describe how people learn best in their context, and are useful in raising awareness about this.

However, it is worth noting that over reliance on one or two specific learning styles can be misleading and harmful. Therefore, it is more effective to guide students to develop skills for what is known as metalearning - an awareness of how they learn. This enables them to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning and requires metacognition.

A popular model in the New Zealand context is the VARK – guide to learning styles. Neil Fleming has developed a tool to explore learning preferences that considers these in terms of the following modes of learning:

  • Visual
  • Aural
  • Reader/writer.
  • Kinaesthetic

Although they may have a preference, for example, to attend lectures rather than study online, students generally utilise a variety of learning styles to enable their learning. From a teaching perspective it is useful to be aware of your students' learning styles and make an effort to cater to a variety of these through using a mix of teaching methods. To do this, it is a good idea to understand your own learning styles first.

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A. Complete these learning styles inventories and compare them:

1. VARK questionnaire.
  • Print or download a copy if you don’t want to do this online.
  • Compare your results with the Vark categories.
  • Read the page on understanding the results.
2. Index of Learning Styles (ILS).
  • Click the link to the ILS questionnaire.
  • Interpret your results - click on the link to Descriptions of the learning styles.

B. Explore other models:

  • Prepare a written reflection about key points.

...or is it all just imagined?

Differing viewpoints about learning styles and preferences are covered in the Introduction to this topic by Don Clark. The existence of learning styles and preferences in acknowledged in the literature, but the best way to measure them is still under discussion.

Also, researchers have suggested that learning styles are far more important when we are deciding what strategies and media to use to teach particular content. For example, David Merrill (2000) believes that the design of instructional strategies based on learning styles, should be influenced by the type of content or the goals of the interactions that the teacher intends the learners to have with the content or with others such as learners and teachers.

What do you think? You may wish to investigate some resources by researchers with views that disagree with individual learning styles... as always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.


Extra resources

  • Learning styles don't exist - video (6.55 min) by Daniel Willingham.
  • The myth of learning styles - a blog post by Mo Costandi for the Wellcome Trust which hosts articles written by experts from the field of neuroscience and beyond.


  • Merrill, D. (2000). Instructional Strategies and Learning Styles: Which takes Precedence? Trends and Issues in Instructional Technology, R. Reiser and J. Dempsey (Eds.). Prentice Hall.