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Learning preferences – are you for or against?

There’s a lot of talk these days about individual learning and differentiation. One way of addressing this is to adapt your teaching approaches to meet your learners’ preferred ways of learning. However, there are so many different ways of ascertaining learning preferences, some might contradict others and even be misunderstood. I think you need to try some with your learners and then decide what works for you and for them.

Most people learn in different ways and what suits one learner might not suit another. Think back to when you got a new mobile device, did you get stuck in and start using it, read the instructions first, or ask someone to show you what to do? That’s an indicator of your learning preference.

If you are a new teacher or trainer, what you might tend to do is facilitate your sessions in the style in which you learn best – although it will suit you, it might not suit your learners. If you can find out what your learners’ individual preferences are, then you can adapt your approaches to suit them.

I love learning preferences, they help me to adapt my sessions to ensure everyone is included and that learning takes place. I ask my learners to take the free short online VARK questionnaire by Fleming at VARK stands for visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic and the results are in scores for each. The higher the score the higher the predominance of that preference. However, not all learners fall into just one preference. They may be multi-modal i.e. a mixture of two or more styles enabling learning to take place more quickly.

Using learning preference results helps me adapt my approaches to each individual. However, it is also ideal for planning group activities and combining learners with different preferences to work together.

After one group activity, a learner asked me what would happen if the groups were combined according to the same preference. So we tried it, with disastrous results, in that none of the groups fully achieved the task. The visual group created an all singing all dancing presentation but didn’t have time to complete it. The aural group discussed the question for so long they didn’t get around to addressing it. The read/write group made lots of notes and digressed away from the question, and the kinesthetic group created a role play, without fully reading the question first. This proved that having a combination of different preferences in each group enabled everyone to work together to achieve the task.

Honey and Mumford (1992) suggest learners are a mixture of four styles: activist, pragmatist, theorist and reflector. They devised a questionnaire which learners can take (purchased via a licence).

You could think about the following when adapting your sessions to suit your learners who fall into these styles.

Activist These learners like to deal with new problems and experiences, often learning by trial and error. They like lots of activities to keep them busy and enjoy a hands-on approach. They love challenges and are enthusiastic.

Pragmatist These learners like to apply what they have learnt to practical situations. They like logical reasons for doing something. They prefer someone to demonstrate a skill first before trying it for themselves.

Theorist These learners need time to take in information, they prefer to read lots of material first. They like things that have been tried and tested and prefer reassurance that something will work.

Reflector These learners think deeply about what they are learning and the activities they could do to apply this learning. They like to be told about things so that they can think it through. They will also try something, think again about it, and then try it again.

In 2004, Professor Frank Coffield of The University of London carried out a systematic and critical review of learning preferences and pedagogy in post-16 learning. The report reviewed the literature on learning preferences and examined in detail 13 of the most influential models. The implications for teaching and learning, he stated, are serious and should be of concern. Coffield has since written widely on the subject and stated … it was not sufficient to pay attention to individual differences in learners, we must take account of the whole teaching-learning environment (2008 p31).

So it’s not just about individual preferences, it’s also about the impact other factors have on learning. For example, the environment, the different subject matter, the context of learning and the learner’s own motivation.

I think it’s all about recognising that different people learn in different ways. These differences need to be taken into account, along with any other aspects that might impact upon learning. These should be identified at the initial assessment stage and by getting to know each learner as a person, not just a statistic.

So, are you for or against using learning preferences with your learners? Why not give them a try if you haven’t already done so?

Coffield F (2004) Learning Preferences and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning London Learning and Skills Research Centre

Coffield F (2008) Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority London Learning and Skills Network

Fleming’s learning preferences questionnaire –

Honey P and Mumford A (1992) The Manual of Learning Preferences (3rd Edn) Maidenhead Peter Honey Associates

Ann Gravells is an author and education consultant. She can be contacted via her website: – you can follow her on Twitter @AnnGravells

The next article from Ann Gravells will be: A few theories of learning in plain English

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