Learning style inventories: Dubious, but useful for learner training anyway?

Learning style theory seems to be on the defensive.

For example, this 2007 article raised questions about the VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic) classification of learners: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1558822/Professor-pans-learning-style-teaching-method.html . Reference is made in the same article to Frank Coffield’s January 2004 review in the Times Higher Education Supplement , in which he cautioned against using learning style inventories to “differentiate between students” and questioned the wisdom of using results from inventories to inform decisions about teaching.

Personally, I have always been wary of learning style inventories; the lower quality ones remind me of horoscopes in that they create the Forer Effect. Nonetheless, as stimuli to provoke reflection on learning strategies, I believe that they might have a positive application, which I will now describe.

I asked two groups of Form 6 students in Hong Kong (ages 16/17) to try the free, online Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (ILSQ) at http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html This generated results like the one below:ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 14 10.16

Balanced between ACTIVE and REFLECTIVE
After students had been assisted to understand their ILSQ results, they discussed the following questions:
  • Do you agree with your ILSQ results?
  • Do you think your learning style is fixed?
  • Does your learning style explain why you are better at certain school subjects?
  • Can knowing your learning style tell you how to study better?

Following this, the students completed a task to select learning strategies, according to their intuition, that suit them best. Finally, it was revealed which strategies matched which of the ILSQ styles, and students could compare their intuitive responses with the strategies recommended according to their ILSQ results.

The above process forced students to reflect on their preferred ways of studying and exposed them to alternative strategies. For these reasons alone, it seemed worth doing, even though the ILSQ has design weaknesses, e.g. two-option responses. Below is the task that was used, adapted from ILSQ’s own resources.


Every day at school you have new lessons. There is always a lot of new information to understand and remember. Teachers do their best to make lesson content understandable and memorable, but they can’t satisfy all learners all of the time. So, how can you help yourself to understand and remember? What can you do after a lesson? Below is a list of possible learning strategies. Tick those strategies that you think work well for you.

Strategy Strategy
1. Summarise the lesson in your own words 2. Summarise the lesson as a mind map (using your own pictures)
3. Highlight key points using coloured pens 4.Try to relate the lesson content to another topic that you have studied
5. Read your notes again to make sure nothing is missing 6. Think of extra questions about the content and ask your teacher later
7. Explain the lesson content to another person. See if they understand. 8. Study multimedia materials about the same topic, e.g. TV documentary
9. Make linear notes with headings and sub-headings to summarise the lesson content. 10. Look at the examples in your course book. Think of extra examples.
11. Review the lesson alone. 12. Summarise the lesson as a flow-chart.
13. Discuss the lesson content with classmates. 14. Find out how this knowledge is used in the real world.

One thought on “Learning style inventories: Dubious, but useful for learner training anyway?

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