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Research Article

Differentiating the learning styles of college students in different disciplines in a college English blended learning setting

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliations Department of Linguistics, School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China, Center for College Foreign Language Teaching, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China, Institute of Asian Civilizations, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China

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Roles Formal analysis, Project administration, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Department of Linguistics, School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China

Roles Formal analysis, Writing – original draft

Roles Writing – review & editing

  • Jie Hu, 
  • Yi Peng, 
  • Xueliang Chen, 


  • Published: May 20, 2021
  • Peer Review
  • Reader Comments

Fig 1

Learning styles are critical to educational psychology, especially when investigating various contextual factors that interact with individual learning styles. Drawing upon Biglan’s taxonomy of academic tribes, this study systematically analyzed the learning styles of 790 sophomores in a blended learning course with 46 specializations using a novel machine learning algorithm called the support vector machine (SVM). Moreover, an SVM-based recursive feature elimination (SVM-RFE) technique was integrated to identify the differential features among distinct disciplines. The findings of this study shed light on the optimal feature sets that collectively determined students’ discipline-specific learning styles in a college blended learning setting.

Citation: Hu J, Peng Y, Chen X, Yu H (2021) Differentiating the learning styles of college students in different disciplines in a college English blended learning setting. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251545.

Editor: Haoran Xie, Lingnan University, HONG KONG

Received: May 15, 2020; Accepted: April 29, 2021; Published: May 20, 2021

Copyright: © 2021 Hu et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Information files.

Funding: This research was supported by the Philosophical and Social Sciences Planning Project of Zhejiang Province in 2020 [grant number 20NDJC01Z] with the recipient Jie Hu, Second Batch of 2019 Industry-University Collaborative Education Project of Chinese Ministry of Education [grant number 201902016038] with the recipient Jie Hu, SUPERB College English Action Plan with the recipient Jie Hu, and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of Zhejiang University with the recipient Jie Hu.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Research background.

Learning style, as an integral and vital part of a student’s learning process, has been constantly discussed in the field of education and pedagogy. Originally developed from the field of psychology, psychological classification, and cognitive research several decades ago [ 1 ], the term “learning style” is generally defined as the learner’s innate and individualized preference for ways of participation in learning practice [ 2 ]. Theoretically, learning style provides a window into students’ learning processes [ 3 , 4 ], predicts students’ learning outcomes [ 5 , 6 ], and plays a critical role in designing individualized instruction [ 7 ]. Knowing a student’s learning style and personalizing instruction to students’ learning style could enhance their satisfaction [ 8 ], improve their academic performance [ 9 ], and even reduce the time necessary to learn [ 10 ].

Researchers in recent years have explored students’ learning styles from various perspectives [ 11 – 13 ]. However, knowledge of the learning styles of students from different disciplines in blended learning environments is limited. In an effort to address this gap, this study aims to achieve two major objectives. First, it investigates how disciplinary background impacts students’ learning styles in a blended learning environment based on data collected in a compulsory college English course. Students across 46 disciplines were enrolled in this course, providing numerous disciplinary factor resources for investigating learning styles. Second, it introduces a novel machine learning method named the SVM to the field of education to identify an optimal set of factors that can simultaneously differentiate students of different academic disciplines. Based on data for students from 46 disciplines, this research delves into the effects of a massive quantity of variables related to students’ learning styles with the help of a powerful machine learning algorithm. Considering the convergence of a wide range of academic disciplines and the detection of latent interactions between a large number of variables, this study aims to provide a clear picture of the relationship between disciplinary factors and students’ learning styles in a blended learning setting.

Literature review

Theories of learning styles..

Learning style is broadly defined as the inherent preferences of individuals as to how they engage in the learning process [ 2 ], and the “cognitive, affective and physiological traits” of students have received special attention [ 14 ]. To date, there has been a proliferation of learning style definitions proposed to explain people’s learning preferences, each focusing on different aspects. Efforts to dissect learning style have been contested, with some highlighting the dynamic process of the learner’s interaction with the learning environment [ 14 ] and others underlining the individualized ways of information processing [ 15 ]. One vivid explication involved the metaphor of an onion, pointing out the multilayer nature of learning styles. It was proposed that the outermost layer of the learning style could change in accordance with the external environment, while the inner layer is relatively stable [ 16 , 17 ]. In addition, a strong concern in this field during the last three decades has led to a proliferation of models that are germane to learning styles, including the Kolb model [ 18 ], the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator model [ 19 ] and the Felder-Silverman learning style model (FSLSM) [ 20 ]. These learning style models have provided useful analytical lenses for analyzing students’ learning styles. The Kolb model focuses on learners’ thinking processes and identifies four types of learning, namely, diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating [ 18 ]. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator model classifies learners into extraversion and introversion types, with the former preferring to learn from interpersonal communication and the latter inclining to benefit from personal experience [ 19 ]. As the most popular available model, the FSLSM identifies eight categories of learners according to the four dimensions of perception, input, processing and understanding [ 20 ]. In contrast to other learning style models that divided students into only a few groups, the FSLSM describes students’ learning styles in a more detailed manner. The four paired dimensions delicately distinguish students’ engagement in the learning process, providing a solid basis for a steady and reliable learning style analysis [ 21 ]. In addition, it has been argued that the FSLSM is the most appropriate model for a technology-enhanced learning environment because it involves important theories of cognitive learning behaviors [ 22 , 23 ]. Therefore, a large number of scholars have based their investigations of students’ learning styles in the e-learning/computer-aided learning environment on FSLSM [ 24 – 28 ].

Learning styles and FSLSM.

Different students receive, process, and respond to information with different learning styles. A theoretical model of learning style can be used to categorize people according to their idiosyncratic learning styles. In this study, the FSLSM was adopted as a theoretical framework to address the collective impacts of differences in students’ learning styles across different disciplines (see Fig 1 ).


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This model specifies the four dimensions of the construct of learning style: visual/verbal, sensing/intuitive, active/reflective, and sequential/global. These four dimensions correspond to four psychological processes: input, perception, processing, and understanding.

The FSLSM includes learning styles scattered among four dimensions.

Visual learners process information best when it is presented as graphs, pictures, etc., while verbal learners prefer spoken cues and remember best what they hear. Sensory learners like working with facts, data, and experimentation, while intuitive learners prefer abstract principles and theories. Active learners like to try things and learn through experimentation, while reflective learners prefer to think things through before taking action. Sequential learners absorb knowledge in a linear fashion and make progress step by step, while global learners tend to grasp the big picture before filling in all the details.

Learning styles and academic disciplines.

Learning styles vary depending on a series of factors, including but not limited to age [ 29 ], gender [ 30 ], personality [ 2 , 31 ], learning environment [ 32 ] and learning experience [ 33 ]. In the higher education context, the academic discipline seems to be an important variable that influences students’ distinctive learning styles, which echoes a multitude of investigations [ 29 , 34 – 41 ]. One notable study explored the learning styles of students from 4 clusters of disciplines in an academic English language course and proposed that the academic discipline is a significant predictor of students’ learning styles, with students from the soft-pure, soft-applied, hard-pure and hard-applied disciplines each favoring different learning modes [ 42 ]. In particular, researchers used the Inventory of Learning Styles (ILS) questionnaire and found prominent disparities in learning styles between students from four different disciplinary backgrounds in the special educational field of vocational training [ 43 ]. These studies have found significant differences between the learning styles of students from different academic disciplines, thus supporting the concept that learning style could be domain dependent.

Learning styles in an online/blended learning environment.

Individuals’ learning styles reflect their adaptive orientation to learning and are not fixed personality traits. Consequently, learning styles can vary among diverse contexts, and related research in different contexts is vital to understanding learning styles in greater depth. Web-based technologies eliminate barriers of space and time and have become integrated in individuals’ daily lives and learning habits. Online and blended learning have begun to pervade virtually every aspect of the education landscape [ 40 ], and this warrants close attention. In addition to a series of studies that reflected upon the application of information and communication technology in the learning process [ 44 , 45 ], recent studies have found a mixed picture of whether students in a web-based/blended learning environment have a typical preference for learning.

Online learning makes it possible for students to set their goals and develop an individualized study plan, equipping them with more learning autonomy [ 46 ]. Generally, students with a more independent learning style, greater self-regulating behavior and stronger self-efficacy are found to be more successful in an online environment [ 47 ]. For now, researchers have made substantial contributions to the identification and prediction of learning styles in an online learning environment [ 27 , 48 – 51 ]. For instance, an inspiring study focused on the manifestation of college students’ learning styles in a purely computer-based learning environment to evaluate the different learning styles of web-learners in the online courses, indicating that students’ learning styles were significantly related to online participation [ 49 ]. Students’ learning styles in interactive E-learning have also been meticulously investigated, from which online tutorials have been found to be contributive to students’ academic performance regardless of their learning styles [ 51 ].

As a flexible learning method, blended courses have combined the advantages of both online learning and traditional teaching methods [ 52 ]. Researchers have investigated students’ learning styles within this context and have identified a series of prominent factors, including perceived satisfaction and technology acceptance [ 53 ], the dynamics of the online/face-to-face environment [ 54 ], and curriculum design [ 55 ]. Based on the Visual, Aural, Reading or Write and Kinesthetic model, a comprehensive study scrutinized the learning styles of K12 students in a blended learning environment, elucidating the effect of the relationship between personality, learning style and satisfaction on educational outcomes [ 56 ]. A recent study underscored the negative effects of kinesthetic learning style, whereas the positive effects of visual or auditory learning styles on students’ academic performance, were also marked in the context of blended learning [ 57 ].

Considering that academic disciplines and learning environment are generally regarded as essential predictors of students’ learning styles, some studies have also concentrated on the effects of academic discipline in a blended learning environment. Focusing on college students’ learning styles in a computer-based learning environment, an inspiring study evaluated the different learning styles of web learners, namely, visual, sensing, global and sequential learners, in online courses. According to the analysis, compared with students from other colleges, liberal arts students, are more susceptible to the uneasiness that may result from remote teaching because of their learning styles [ 11 ]. A similar effort was made with the help of the CMS tool usage logs and course evaluations to explore the learning styles of disciplinary quadrants in the online learning environment. The results indicated that there were noticeable differences in tool preferences between students from different domains [ 12 ]. In comparison, within the context of blended learning, a comprehensive study employed chi-square statistics on the basis of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) presences framework, arguing that soft-applied discipline learners in the blended learning environment prefer the kinesthetic learning style, while no correlations between the learning style of soft-pure and hard-pure discipline students and the CoI presences were identified. However, it is noted that students’ blended learning experience depends heavily on academic discipline, especially for students in hard-pure disciplines [ 13 ].

Research gaps and research questions

Overall, the research seems to be gaining traction, and new perspectives are continually introduced. The recent literature on learning styles mostly focuses on the exploration of the disciplinary effects on the variation in learning styles, and some of these studies were conducted within the blended environment. However, most of the studies focused only on several discrete disciplines or included only a small group of student samples [ 34 – 41 ]. Data in these studies were gathered through specialized courses such as academic English language [ 42 ] rather than the compulsory courses available to students from all disciplines. Even though certain investigations indeed boasted a large number of samples [ 49 ], the role of teaching was emphasized rather than students’ learning style. In addition, what is often overlooked is that a large number of variables related to learning styles could distinguish students from different academic disciplines in a blended learning environment, whereas a more comprehensive analysis that takes into consideration the effects of a great quantity of variables related to learning styles has remained absent. Therefore, one goal of the present study is to fill this gap and shed light on this topic.

Another issue addressed in this study is the selection of an optimal measurement that can effectively identify and differentiate individual learning styles [ 58 ]. The effective identification and differentiation of individual learning styles can not only help students develop greater awareness of their learning but also provide teachers with the necessary input to design tailor-made instructions in pedagogical practice. Currently, there are two general approaches to identify learning styles: a literature-based approach and a data-driven approach. The literature-based approach tends to borrow established rules from the existing literature, while the data-driven approach tends to construct statistical models using algorithms from fields such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data mining [ 59 ]. Research related to learning styles has been performed using predominantly traditional instruments, such as descriptive statistics, Spearman’s rank correlation, coefficient R [ 39 ], multivariate analysis of variance [ 56 ] and analysis of variance (ANOVA) [ 38 , 43 , 49 , 57 ]. Admittedly, these instruments have been applied and validated in numerous studies, in different disciplines, and across multiple timescales. Nevertheless, some of the studies using these statistical tools did not identify significant results [ 36 , 53 , 54 ] or reached only loose conclusions [ 60 ]; this might be because of the inability of these methods to probe into the synergistic effects of variables. However, the limited functions of comparison, correlation, prediction, etc. are being complemented by a new generation of technological innovations that promise more varied approaches to addressing social and scientific issues. Machine learning is one such approach that has received much attention both in academia and beyond. As a subset of artificial intelligence, machine learning deals with algorithms and statistical models on computer systems, performing tasks based on patterns and inference instead of explicit instruction. As such, it can deal with high volumes of data at the same time, perform tasks automatically and independently, and continuously improve its performance based on past experience [ 54 ]. Similar machine learning approaches have been proposed and tested by different scholars to identify students’ learning styles, with varying results regarding the classification of learning styles. For instance, a study that examined the precision levels of four computational intelligence approaches, i.e., artificial neural network, genetic algorithm, ant colony system and particle swarm optimization, found that the average precision of learning style differentiation ranged between 66% and 77% [ 61 ]. Another study that classified learning styles through SVM reported accuracy levels ranging from 53% to 84% [ 62 ]. A comparison of the prediction performance of SVM and artificial neural networks found that SVM has higher prediction accuracy than the latter [ 63 ]. This was further supported by another study, which yielded a similar result between SVM and the particle swarm optimization algorithm [ 64 ]. Moreover, when complemented by a genetic algorithm [ 65 ] and ant colony system [ 66 ], SVM has also shown improved results. These findings across different fields point to the reliability of SVM as an effective statistical tool for identification and differentiation analysis.

Therefore, a comprehensive investigation across the four general disciplines in Biglan’s taxonomy using a strong machine learning approach is needed. Given the existence of the research gaps discussed above, this exploratory study seeks to address the following questions:

  • Can students’ learning styles be applied to differentiate various academic disciplines in the blended learning setting? If so, what are the differentiability levels among different academic disciplines based on students’ learning styles?
  • What are the key features that can be selected to determine the collective impact on differentiation by a machine learning algorithm?
  • What are the collective impacts of optimal feature sets?

Materials and methods

This study adopted a quantitative approach for the analysis. First, a modified and translated version of the original ILS questionnaire was administered to collect scores for students’ learning styles. Then, two alternate data analyses were performed separately. One analysis involved a traditional ANOVA, which tested the main effect of discipline on students’ learning styles in each ILS dimension. The other analysis involved the support vector machine (SVM) technique to test its performance in classifying students’ learning styles in the blended learning course among 46 specializations. Then, SVM-based recursive feature elimination (SVM-RFE) was employed to specify the impact of students’ disciplinary backgrounds on their learning styles in blended learning. By referencing the 44 questions (operationalized as features in this study) in the ILS questionnaire, SVM-RFE could rank these features based on their relative importance in differentiating different disciplines and identify the key features that collectively differentiate the students’ learning style. These steps are intended to not only identify students’ learning style differences but also explain such differences in relation to their academic disciplinary backgrounds.


The participants included 790 sophomores taking the blended English language course from 46 majors at Z University. Sophomore students were selected for this study for two reasons. First, sophomores are one of the only two groups of students (the other group being college freshmen) who take a compulsory English language course, namely, the College English language course. Second, of these two groups of students, sophomores have received academic discipline-related education, while their freshmen counterparts have not had disciplinary training during the first year of college. In the College English language course, online activities, representing 55% of the whole course, include e-course teaching designed by qualified course teachers or professors, courseware usage for online tutorials, forum discussion and essay writing, and two online quizzes. Offline activities, which represent 45% of the whole course, include role-playing, ice-breaker activities, group presentations, an oral examination, and a final examination. Therefore, the effects of the academic discipline on sophomores’ learning styles might be sufficiently salient to warrant a comparison in a blended learning setting [ 67 ]. Among the participants, 420 were male, and 370 were female. Most participants were aged 18 to 19 years and had taken English language courses for at least 6 years. Based on Biglan’s typology of disciplinary fields, the students’ specializations were classified into the four broad disciplines of hard-applied (HA, 289/37.00%), hard-pure (HP, 150/19.00%), soft-applied (SA, 162/20.00%), and soft-pure (SP, 189/24.00%).

Biglan’s classification scheme of academic disciplines (hard (H) vs. soft (S) disciplines and pure (P) vs. applied (A) disciplines) has been credited as the most cited organizational system of academic disciplines in tertiary education [ 68 – 70 ]. Many studies have also provided evidence supporting the validity of this classification [ 69 ]. Over the years, research has indicated that Biglan’s typology is correlated with differences in many other properties and serves as an appropriate mechanism to organize discipline-specific knowledge or epistemologies [ 38 ] and design and deliver courses for students with different learning style preferences [ 41 ]. Therefore, this classification provides a convenient framework to explore differences across disciplinary boundaries. In general, HA disciplines include engineering, HP disciplines include the so-called natural sciences, SA disciplines include the social sciences, and SP disciplines include the humanities [ 41 , 68 , 71 ].

In learning style research, it is difficult to select an instrument to measure the subjects’ learning styles [ 72 ]. The criteria used for the selection of a learning style instrument in this study include the following: 1) successful use of the instrument in previous studies, 2) demonstrated validity and reliability, 3) a match between the purpose of the instrument and the aim of this study and 4) open access to the questionnaire.

The Felder and Soloman’s ILS questionnaire, which was built based on the FSLSM, was adopted in the present study to investigate students’ learning styles across different disciplines. First, the FSLSM is recognized as the most commonly used model for measuring individual learning styles on a general scale [ 73 ] in higher education [ 74 ] and has remained popular for many years across different disciplines in university settings and beyond. In the age of personalized instruction, this model has breathed new life into areas such as blended learning [ 75 ], online distance learning [ 76 ], courseware design [ 56 ], and intelligent tutoring systems [ 77 , 78 ]. Second, the FSLSM is based on previous learning style models; the FSLSM integrates all their advantages and is, thus, more comprehensive in delineating students’ learning styles [ 79 , 80 ]. Third, the FSLSM has a good predictive ability with independent testing sets (i.e., unknown learning style objects) [ 17 ], which has been repeatedly proven to be a more accurate, reliable, and valid model than most other models for predicting students’ learning performance [ 10 , 80 ]. Fourth, the ILS is a free instrument that can be openly accessed online (URL: ) and has been widely used in the research context [ 81 , 82 ].

The modified and translated version of the original ILS questionnaire includes 44 questions in total, and 11 questions correspond to each dimension of the Felder-Silverman model as follows: questions 1–11 correspond to dimension 1 (active vs. reflective), questions 12–22 correspond to dimension 2 (sensing vs. intuitive), questions 23–33 correspond to dimension 3 (visual vs. verbal), and questions correspond 34–44 to dimension 4 (sequential vs. global). Each question is followed by five choices on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly agree with A (1)”, “agree with A (2)”, “neutral (3)”, “agree with B (4)” and “strongly agree with B (5)”. Option A and option B represent the two choices offered in the original ILS questionnaire.

Ethics statements

The free questionnaires were administered in a single session by specialized staff who collaborated on the investigation. The participants completed all questionnaires individually. The study procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Helsinki Declaration and were approved by the Ethics Committee of the School of International Studies, Zhejiang University. All participants signed written informed consent to authorize their participation in this research. After completion of the informed consent form, each participant was provided a gift (a pen) in gratitude for their contribution and participation.

Data collection procedure

Before the questionnaires were distributed, the researchers involved in this study contacted faculty members from various departments and requested their help. After permission was given, the printed questionnaires were administered to students under the supervision of their teachers at the end of their English language course. The students were informed of the purpose and importance of the study and asked to carefully complete the questionnaires. The students were also assured that their personal information would be used for research purposes only. All students provided written informed consent (see S2 File ). After the questionnaires were completed and returned, they were thoroughly examined by the researchers such that problematic questionnaires could be identified and excluded from further analysis. All questionnaires eligible for the data analysis had to meet the following two standards: first, all questions must be answered, and second, the answered questions must reflect a reasonable logic. Regarding the few missing values, the median number of a given individual’s responses on 11 questions per dimension included in the ILS questionnaire was used to fill the void in each case. In statistics, using the median number to impute missing values is common and acceptable because missing values represent only a small minority of the entire dataset and are assumed to not have a large impact on the final results [ 83 , 84 ].

In total, 850 questionnaires were administered to the students, and 823 of these questionnaires were retrieved. Of the retrieved questionnaires, the remaining 790 questionnaires were identified as appropriate for further use. After data screening, these questionnaires were organized, and their respective results were translated into an Excel format.

Data analysis method

During the data analysis, as a library of the SVM, the free package LIBSVM ( ) was first applied as an alternative method of data analysis. Then, a traditional ANOVA was performed to examine whether there was a main effect of academic discipline on Chinese students’ learning styles. ANOVA could be performed using SPSS, a strong data analysis software that supports a series of statistical analyses. In regard to the examination of the effect of a single or few independent variables, SPSS ANOVA can produce satisfactory results. However, SVM, a classic data mining algorithm, outperforms ANOVA for dataset in which a large number of variables with multidimensions are intertwined and their combined/collective effects influence the classification results. In this study, the research objective was to efficiently differentiate and detect the key features among the 44 factors. Alone, a single factor or few factors might not be significant enough to discriminate the learning styles among the different disciplines. Selected by the SVM, the effects of multiple features may collectively enhance the classification performance. Therefore, the reason for selecting SVM over ANOVA is that in the latter case, the responses on all questions in a single dimension are summed instead of treated as individual scores; thus, the by-item variation is concealed. In addition, the SVM is especially suitable for statistical analysis with high-dimensional factors (usually > 10; 44-dimensional factors were included in this study) and can detect the effects collectively imposed by a feature set [ 85 ].

Originally proposed in 1992 [ 86 ], the SVM is a supervised learning model related to machine learning algorithms that can be used for classification, data analysis, pattern recognition, and regression analysis. The SVM is an efficient classification model that optimally divides data into two categories and is ranked among the top methods in statistical theory due to its originality and practicality [ 85 ]. Due to its robustness, accurate classification, and prediction performance [ 87 – 89 ], the SVM has high reproducibility [ 90 , 91 ]. Due to the lack of visualization of the computing process of the SVM, the SVM has been described as a “black box” method [ 92 ]; however, future studies in the emerging field of explainable artificial intelligence can help solve this problem and convert this approach to a “glass box” method [ 67 ]. This algorithm has proven to have a solid theoretical foundation and excellent empirical application in the social sciences, including education [ 93 ] and natural language processing [ 94 ]. The mechanism underlying the SVM is also presented in Fig 2 .


Hyperplanes 1 and 2 are two regression lines that divide the data into two groups. Hyperplane 1 is considered the best fitting line because it maximizes the distance between the two groups.

The SVM contains the following two modules: one module is a general-purpose machine learning method, and the other module is a domain-specific kernel function. The SVM training algorithm is used to build a training model that is then used to predict the category to which a new sample instance belongs [ 95 ]. When a set of training samples is given, each sample is given the label of one of two categories. To evaluate the performance of SVM models, a confusion matrix, which is a table describing the performance of a classifier on a set of test data for which the true values are known, is used (see Table 1 ).


learning styles research paper

ACC represents the proportion of true results, including both positive and negative results, in the selected population;

SPE represents the proportion of actual negatives that are correctly identified as such;

SEN represents the proportion of actual positives that are correctly identified as such;

AUC is a ranking-based measure of classification performance that can distinguish a randomly chosen positive example from a randomly chosen negative example; and

F-measure is the harmonic mean of precision (another performance indicator) and recall.

The ACC is a good metric frequently applied to indicate the measurement of classification performance, but the combination of the SPE, SEN, AUC, F-measure and ACC may be a measure of enhanced performance assessment and was frequently applied in current studies [ 96 ]. In particular, the AUC is a good metric frequently applied to validate the measurement of the general performance of models [ 97 ]. The advantage of this measure is that it is invariant to relative class distributions and class-specific error costs [ 98 , 99 ]. Moreover, to some extent, the AUC is statistically consistent and more discriminating than the ACC with balanced and imbalanced real-world data sets [ 100 ], which is especially suitable for unequal samples, such as the HA-HP model in this study. After all data preparations were completed, the data used for the comparisons were extracted separately. First, the processed data of the training set were run by using optimized parameters. Second, the constructed model was used to predict the test set, and the five indicators of the fivefold cross-validation and fivefold average were obtained. Cross-validation is a general validation procedure used to assess how well the results of a statistical analysis generalize to an independent data set, which is used to evaluate the stability of the statistical model. K-fold cross-validation is commonly used to search for the best hyperparameters of SVM to achieve the highest accuracy performance [ 101 ]. In particular, fivefold, tenfold, and leave-one-out cross-validation are typically used versions of k-fold cross-validation [ 102 , 103 ]. Fivefold cross-validation was selected because fivefold validation can generally achieve a good prediction performance [ 103 , 104 ] and has been commonly used as a popular rule of thumb supported by empirical evidence [ 105 ]. In this study, five folds (groups) of subsets were randomly divided from the entire set by the SVM, and four folds (training sample) of these subsets were randomly selected to develop a prediction model, while the remaining one fold (test sample) was used for validation. The above functions were all implemented with Python Programming Language version 3.7.0 (URL: ).

Then, SVM-RFE, which is an embedded feature selection strategy that was first applied to identify differentially expressed genes between patients and healthy individuals [ 106 ], was adopted. SVM-RFE has proven to be more robust to data overfitting than other feature selection techniques and has shown its power in many fields [ 107 ]. This approach works by removing one feature each time with the smallest weight iteratively to a feature rank until a group of highly weighted features were selected. After this feature selection procedure, several SVM models were again constructed based on these selected features. The performance of the new models is compared to that of the original models with all features included. The experimental process is provided in Fig 3 for the ease of reference.


The classification results produced by SVM and the ranking of the top 20 features produced by SVM-RFE were listed in Table 2 . Twenty variables have been selected in this study for two reasons: a data-based reason and a literature-based reason. First, it is clear that models composed of 20 features generally have a better performance than the original models. The performance of models with more than 20 is negatively influenced. Second, SVM-based studies in the social sciences have identified 20 to 30 features as a good number for an optimal feature set [ 108 ], and 20 features were selected for inclusion in the optimal feature set [ 95 ]. Therefore, in this study, the top 20 features were selected for subsequent analysis, as proposed in previous analyses that yielded accepted measurement rates. These 20 features retained most of the useful information from all 44 factors but with fewer feature numbers, which showed satisfactory representation [ 96 ].


Results of RQ (1) What are the differentiability levels among different academic disciplines based on students’ learning styles?

To further measure the performance of the differentiability among students’ disciplines, the collected data were examined with the SVM algorithm. As shown in Table 2 , the five performance indicators, namely, the ACC, SPE, SEN, AUC and F-measure, were utilized to measure the SVM models. Regarding the two general performance indicators, i.e., the ACC value and AUC value, the HA-HP, HA-SA, and HA-SP-based models yielded a classification capacity of approximately 70.00%, indicating that the students in these disciplines showed a relatively large difference. In contrast, the models based on the H-S, A-P, HP-SA, HP-SP, and SA-SP disciplines only showed a moderate classification capacity (above 55.00%). This finding suggests that these five SVM models were not as effective as the other three models in differentiating students among these disciplines based on their learning styles. The highest ACC and AUC values were obtained in the model based on the HA-HP disciplines, while the lowest values were obtained in the model based on the HP-SA disciplines. As shown in Table 2 , the AUCs of the different models ranged from 57.76% (HP-SA) to 73.97% (HA-HP).

To compare the results of the SVM model with another statistical analysis, an ANOVA was applied. Prior to the main analysis, the students’ responses in each ILS dimension were summed to obtain a composite score. All assumptions of ANOVA were checked, and no serious violations were observed. Then, an ANOVA was performed with academic discipline as the independent variable and the students’ learning styles as the dependent variable. The results of the ANOVA showed that there was no statistically significant difference in the group means of the students’ learning styles in Dimension 1, F(3, 786) = 2.56, p = .054, Dimension 2, F(3, 786) = 0.422, p = .74, or Dimension 3, F(3, 786) = 0.90, p = .443. However, in Dimension 4, a statistically significant difference was found in the group means of the students’ learning styles, F (3, 786) = 0.90, p = .005. As the samples in the four groups were unbalanced, post hoc comparisons using Scheffé’s method were performed, demonstrating that the means of the students’ learning styles significantly differed only between the HA (M = 31.04, SD = 4.986) and SP (M = 29.55, SD = 5.492) disciplines, 95.00% CI for MD [0.19, 2.78], p = .016, whereas the other disciplinary models showed no significant differences. When compared with the results obtained from the SVM models, the three models (HA-HP, HA-SA, and HA-SP models) presented satisfactory differentiability capability of approximately 70.00% based on the five indicators.

In the case of a significant result, it was difficult to determine which questions were representative of the significant difference. With a nonsignificant result, it was possible that certain questions might be relevant in differentiating the participants. However, this problem was circumvented in the SVM, where each individual question was treated as a variable and a value was assigned to indicate its relative importance in the questionnaire. Using SVM also circumvented the inherent problems with traditional significance testing, especially the reliance on p-values, which might become biased in the case of multiple comparisons [ 109 ].

Results of RQ (2) What are the key features that can be selected to determine the collective impact on differentiation by a machine learning algorithm?

To examine whether the model performance improved as a result of this feature selection procedure, the 20 selected features were submitted to another round of SVM analysis. The same five performance indicators were used to measure the model performance (see Table 2 ). By comparing the performance of the SVM model and that of the SVM-RFE model presented in Table 2 , except for the HA-SP model, all other models presented a similar or improved performance after the feature selection process. In particular, the improvement in the HA-HP and HP-SA models was quite remarkable. For instance, in the HA-HP model, the ACC value increased from 69.32% in the SVM model to 82.59% in the SVM-RFE model, and the AUC score substantially increased from 73.97% in the SVM model to 89.13% in the SVM-RFE model. This finding suggests that the feature selection process refined the model’s classification accuracy and that the 20 features selected, out of all 44 factors, carry substantive information that might be informative for exploring disciplinary differences. Although results for the indicators of the 20 selected features were not very high, all five indicators above 65.00% showed that the model was still representative because only 20 of 44 factors could present the classification capability. Considering that there was a significant reduction in the number of questions used for the model construction in SVM-RFE (compared with those used for the SVM model), the newly identified top 20 features by SVM-RFE were effective enough to preserve the differential ability of all 44 questions. Thus, these newly identified top 20 factors could be recognized as key differential features for distinguishing two distinct disciplines.

To identify these top 20 features in eight models (see Table 2 ), SVM-RFE was applied to rank order all 44 features contained in the ILS questionnaire. To facilitate a detailed understanding of what these features represent, the questions related to the top 20 features in the HA-HP model are listed in Table 3 for ease of reference.


Results of RQ (3) What are the collective impacts of optimal feature sets?

The collective impacts of optimal feature sets could be interpreted from four aspects, namely, the complexities of students’ learning styles, the appropriate choice of SVM, the ranking of SVM-RFE and multiple detailed comparisons between students from different disciplines. First, the FSLSM considers the fact that students’ learning styles are shaped by a series of factors during the growth process, which intertwine and interact with each other. Considering the complex dynamics of the learning style, selecting an approach that could detect the combined effects of a group of variables is needed. Second, recent years have witnessed the emergence of data mining approaches to explore students learning styles [ 28 , 48 – 50 , 110 ]. Specifically, as one of the top machine learning algorithms, the SVM excels in identifying the combined effects of high-order factors [ 87 ]. In this study, the SVM has proven to perform well in classifying students’ learning styles across different disciplines, with every indicator being acceptable. Third, the combination of SVM with RFE could enable the simultaneous discovery of multiple features that collectively determine classification. Notably, although SVM-FRE could rank the importance of the features, they should be regarded as an entire optimal feature set. In other words, the combination of these 20 features, rather than a single factor, could differentiate students’ learning styles across different academic disciplines. Last but not least, the multiple comparisons between different SVM models of discipline provide the most effective learning style factors, giving researchers clues to the nuanced differences between students’ learning styles. It can be seen that students from different academic disciplines understand, see and reflect things from individualized perspectives. The 20 most effective factors for all models scattered within 1 to 44, verifying students’ different learning styles in 4 dimensions. Therefore, the FSLSM provides a useful and effective tool for evaluating students’ learning styles from a rather comprehensive point of view.

The following discussions address the three research questions explored in the current study.

Levels of differentiability among various academic disciplines based on students’ learning styles with SVM

The results suggest that SVM is an effective approach for classification in the blended learning context in which students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds can be distinguished from each other according to their learning styles. All performance indicators presented in Tables 2 and 3 remain above the baseline of 50.00%, suggesting that between each two disciplines, students’ learning style differences can be identified. To some extent, these differences can be identified with a relatively satisfactory classification capability (e.g., 69.32% of the ACC and 73.97% of the AUC in the HA-HP model shown in Table 2 ). Further support for the SVM algorithm is obtained from the SVM-RFE constructed to assess the rank of the factors’ classification capacity, and all values also remained above the baseline value, while some values reached a relatively high classification capability (e.g., 82.59% of the ACC and 89.13% of the AUC in the HA-HP model shown in Table 2 ). While the results obtained mostly show a moderate ACC and AUC, they still provide some validity evidence supporting the role of SVM as an effective binary classifier in the educational context. However, while these differences are noteworthy, the similarities among students in different disciplines also deserve attention. The results reported above indicate that in some disciplines, the classification capacity is not relatively high; this was the case for the model based on the SA-SP disciplines.

Regarding low differentiability, one explanation might be the indistinct classification of some emerging “soft disciplines.” It was noted that psychology, for example, could be identified as “a discipline that can be considered predominantly ‘soft’ and slightly ‘purer’ than ‘applied’ in nature” [ 111 ] (p. 43–53), which could have blurred the line between the SA and SP disciplines. As there is now no impassable gulf separating the SA and SP disciplines, their disciplinary differences may have diminished in the common practice of lecturing in classrooms. Another reason comes from the different cultivation models of “soft disciplines” and “hard disciplines” for sample students. In their high school, sample students are generally divided into liberal art students and science students and are then trained in different environments of knowledge impartation. The two-year unrelenting and intensive training makes it possible for liberal art students to develop a similar thinking and cognitive pattern that is persistent. After the college entrance examination, most liberal art students select SA or SP majors. However, a year or more of study in university does not exert strong effects on their learning styles, which explains why a multitude of researchers have traditionally investigated the SA and SP disciplines together, calling them simply “social science” or “soft disciplines” compared with “natural science” or “hard disciplines”. There have been numerous contributions pointing out similarities in the learning styles of students from “soft disciplines” [ 37 , 112 – 114 ]. However, students majoring in natural science exhibit considerable differences in learning styles, demonstrating that the talent cultivation model of “hard disciplines” in universities is to some extent more influential on students’ learning styles than that of the “soft disciplines”. Further compelling interpretations of this phenomenon await only the development of a sufficient level of accumulated knowledge among scholars in this area.

In general, these results are consistent with those reported in many previous studies based on the Felder-Silverman model. These studies tested the precision of different computational approaches in identifying and differentiating the learning styles of students. For example, by means of a Bayesian network (BN), an investigation obtained an overall precision of 58.00% in the active/reflective dimension, 77.00% in the sensing/intuitive dimension and 63.00% in the sequential/global dimension (the visual/verbal dimension was not considered) [ 81 ]. With the help of the keyword attributes of learning objects selected by students, a precision of 70.00% in the active/reflective dimension, 73.30% in the sensing/intuitive dimension, 73.30% in the sequential/global dimension and 53.30% in the visual/verbal dimension was obtained [ 115 ].

These results add to a growing body of evidence expanding the scope of the application of the SVM algorithm. Currently, the applications of the SVM algorithm still reside largely in engineering or other hard disciplines despite some tentative trials in the humanities and social sciences [ 26 ]. In addition, as cross-disciplines increase in current higher education, it is essential to match the tailored learning styles of students and researchers studying interdisciplinary subjects, such as the HA, HP, SA and SP disciplines. Therefore, the current study is the first to incorporate such a machine learning algorithm into interdisciplinary blended learning and has broader relevance to further learning style-related theoretical or empirical investigations.

Verification of the features included in the optimal feature sets

Features included in the optimal feature sets provided mixed findings compared with previous studies. Some of the 20 identified features are verified and consistent with previous studies. A close examination of the individual questions included in the feature sets can offer some useful insights into the underlying psychological processes. For example, in six of the eight models constructed, Question 1 (“I understand something better after I try it out/think it through”) appears as the feature with the number 1 ranking, highlighting the great importance attached to this question. This question mainly reflects the dichotomy between experimentation and introspection. A possible revelation is that students across disciplines dramatically differ in how they process tasks, with the possible exception of the SA-SP disciplines. This difference has been supported by many previous studies. For example, it was found that technical students tended to be more tactile than those in the social sciences [ 116 ], and engineering students (known as HA in this study) were more inclined toward concrete and pragmatic learning styles [ 117 ]. Similarly, it was explored that engineering students prefer “a logical learning style over visual, verbal, aural, physical or solitary learning styles” [ 37 ] (p. 122), while social sciences (known as SA in this study) students prefer a social learning style to a logical learning style. Although these studies differ in their focus to a certain degree, they provide an approximate idea of the potential differences among students in their relative disciplines. In general, students in the applied disciplines show a tendency to experiment with tasks, while those in the pure disciplines are more inclined towards introspective practices, such as an obsession with theories. For instance, in Biglan’s taxonomy of academic disciplines, students in HP disciplines prefer abstract rules and theories, while students in SA disciplines favor application [ 67 ]. Additionally, Question 10 (“I find it easier to learn facts/to learn concepts”) is similar to Question 1, as both questions indicate a certain level of abstraction or concreteness. The difference between facts and concepts is closely related to the classification difference between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge in cognitive psychology [ 35 , 38 ]. Declarative knowledge is static and similar to facts, while procedural knowledge is more dynamic and primarily concerned with operational steps. Students’ preferences for facts or concepts closely correspond to this psychological distinction.

In addition, Questions 2, 4, 7, and 9 also occur frequently in the 20 features selected for the different models. Question 2 (“I would rather be considered realistic/innovative”) concerns taking chances. This question reflects a difference in perspective, i.e., whether the focus should be on obtaining pragmatic results or seeking original solutions. This difference cannot be easily connected to the disciplinary factor. Instead, there are numerous factors, e.g., genetic, social and psychological factors, that may play a strong role in defining this trait. The academic discipline only serves to strengthen or diminish this difference. For instance, decades of research in psychology have shown that males are more inclined towards risk taking than females [ 118 – 121 ]. A careful examination of the current academic landscape reveals a gender difference; more females choose soft disciplines than males, and more males choose hard disciplines than females. This situation builds a disciplinary wall classifying students into specific categories, potentially strengthening the disciplinary effect. For example, Question 9 (“In a study group working on difficult material, I am more likely to jump in and contribute ideas/sit back and listen”) emphasizes the distinction between active participation and introspective thinking, reflecting an underlying psychological propensity in blended learning. Within this context, the significance of this question could also be explained by the psychological evaluation of “loss and gain”, as students’ different learning styles are associated with expected reward values and their internal motivational drives, which are determined by their personality traits [ 122 ]. When faced with the risk of “losing face”, whether students will express their ideas in front of a group of people depends largely on their risk and stress management capabilities and the presence of an appropriate motivation system.

The other two questions also convey similar messages regarding personality differences. Question 4 concerns how individuals perceive the world, while Question 7 concerns the preferred modality of information processing. Evidence of disciplinary differences in these respects was also reported [ 35 , 123 – 125 ]. The other questions, such as Questions 21, 27, and 39, show different aspects of potential personality differences and are mostly consistent with the previous discussion. This might also be a vivid reflection of the multi-faceted effects of blended learning, which may differ in their consonance with the features of each discipline. First, teachers from different domains use technology in different ways, and student from different disciplines may view blended learning differently. For instance, the characteristics of soft-applied fields entail specialized customization in blended courses, further broadening the gulf between different subjects [ 126 ]. Second, although blended learning is generally recognized as a stimulus to students’ innovation [ 127 ], some students who are used to an instructivist approach in which the educator acts as a ‘sage on the stage’ will find it difficult to adapt to a social constructivist approach in which the educator serves as a ‘guide on the side’ [ 128 ]. This difficulty might not only negatively affect students’ academic performance but also latently magnify the effects of different academic disciplines.

Interpretation of the collective impact of optimal feature sets

In each SVM model based on a two-discipline model, the 20 key features (collectively known as an optimal feature set) selected exert a concerted effect on students’ learning styles across different disciplines (see Table 2 ). A broad examination of the distribution of collective impact of each feature set with 20 features in the eight discipline models suggests that it is especially imperative considering the emerging cross-disciplines in academia. Current higher education often involves courses with crossed disciplines and students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. In addition, with the rise of technology-enhanced learning, the design of personalized tutoring systems requires more nuanced information related to student attributes to provide greater adaptability [ 59 ]. By identifying these optimal feature sets, such information becomes accessible. Therefore, understanding such interdisciplinary factors and designing tailor-made instructions are essential for promoting learning success [ 9 ]. For example, in an English language classroom in which the students are a blend of HP and SP disciplines, instructors might consider integrating a guiding framework at the beginning of the course and stepwise guidelines during the process such that the needs of both groups are met. With the knowledge that visual style is dominant across disciplines, instructors might include more graphic presentations (e.g., Question 11) in language classrooms rather than continue to use slides or boards filled with words. Furthermore, to achieve effective communication with students and deliver effective teaching, instructors may target these students’ combined learning styles. While some methods are already practiced in real life, this study acts as a further reminder of the rationale underlying these practices and thus increases the confidence of both learners and teachers regarding these practices. Therefore, the practical implications of this study mainly concern classroom teachers and educational researchers, who may draw some inspiration for interdisciplinary curriculum design and the tailored application of learning styles to the instructional process.


This study investigated learning style differences among students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in a blended English language course based on the Felder-Silverman model. By introducing a novel machine learning algorithm, namely, SVM, for the data analysis, the following conclusions can be reached. First, the multiple performance indicators used in this study confirm that it is feasible to apply learning styles to differentiate various disciplines in students’ blended learning processes. These disciplinary differences impact how students engage in their blended learning activities and affect students’ ultimate blended learning success. Second, some questions in the ILS questionnaire carry more substantive information about students’ learning styles than other questions, and certain underlying psychological processes can be derived. These psychological processes reflect students’ discipline-specific epistemologies and represent the possible interaction between the disciplinary background and learning style. In addition, the introduction of SVM in this study can provide inspiration for future studies of a similar type along with the theoretical significance of the above findings.

Despite the notable findings of this study, it is subject to some limitations that may be perfected in further research. First, the current analysis examined the learning styles without allowing for the effects of other personal or contextual factors. The educational productivity model proposed by Walberg underlines the significance of the collected influence of contextual factors on individuals’ learning [ 129 ]. For example, teachers from different backgrounds and academic disciplines are inclined to select various teaching methods and to create divergent learning environments [ 130 ], which should also be investigated thoroughly. The next step is therefore to take into account the effects of educational background, experience, personality and learning experience to gain a more comprehensive understanding of students’ learning process in the blended setting.

In conclusion, the findings of this research validate previous findings and offer new perspectives on students’ learning styles in a blended learning environment, which provides future implications for educational researchers, policy makers and educational practitioners (i.e., teachers and students). For educational researchers, this study not only highlights the merits of using machine learning algorithms to explore students’ learning styles but also provides valuable information on the delicate interactions between blended learning, academic disciplines and learning styles. For policy makers, this analysis provides evidence for a more inclusive but personalized educational policy. For instance, in addition to learning styles, the linkage among students’ education in different phases should be considered. For educational practitioners, this study plays a positive role in promoting student-centered and tailor-made teaching. The findings of this study can help learners of different disciplines develop a more profound understanding of their blended learning tendencies and assist teachers in determining how to bring students’ learning styles into full play pedagogically, especially in interdisciplinary courses [ 131 – 134 ].

Supporting information

S2 File. Informed consent for participants.

S1 Dataset.


The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on this paper and Miss Ying Zhou for her suggestions during the revision on this paper.

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Systematic review article, how common is belief in the learning styles neuromyth, and does it matter a pragmatic systematic review.

learning styles research paper

  • Swansea University Medical School, Swansea University, Swansea, United Kingdom

A commonly cited use of Learning Styles theory is to use information from self-report questionnaires to assign learners into one or more of a handful of supposed styles (e.g., Visual, Auditory, Converger) and then design teaching materials that match the supposed styles of individual students. A number of reviews, going back to 2004, have concluded that there is currently no empirical evidence that this “matching instruction” improves learning, and it could potentially cause harm. Despite this lack of evidence, survey research and media coverage suggest that belief in this use of Learning Styles theory is high amongst educators. However, it is not clear whether this is a global pattern, or whether belief in Learning Styles is declining as a result of the publicity surrounding the lack of evidence to support it. It is also not clear whether this belief translates into action. Here we undertake a systematic review of research into belief in, and use of, Learning Styles amongst educators. We identified 37 studies representing 15,405 educators from 18 countries around the world, spanning 2009 to early 2020. Self-reported belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles was high, with a weighted percentage of 89.1%, ranging from 58 to 97.6%. There was no evidence that this belief has declined in recent years, for example 95.4% of trainee (pre-service) teachers agreed that matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective. Self-reported use, or planned use, of matching instruction to Learning Styles was similarly high. There was evidence of effectiveness for educational interventions aimed at helping educators understand the lack of evidence for matching in learning styles, with self-reported belief dropping by an average of 37% following such interventions. From a pragmatic perspective, the concerning implications of these results are moderated by a number of methodological aspects of the reported studies. Most used convenience sampling with small samples and did not report critical measures of study quality. It was unclear whether participants fully understood that they were specifically being asked about the matching of instruction to Learning Styles, or whether the questions asked could be interpreted as referring to a broader interpretation of the theory. These findings suggest that the concern expressed about belief in Learning Styles may not be fully supported by current evidence, and highlight the need to undertake further research on the objective use of matching instruction to specific Learning Styles.


For decades, educators have been advised to match their teaching to the supposed Learning styles of students ( Hyman and Rosoff, 1984 ). There are now over 70 different Learning Styles classification systems ( Coffield et al., 2004 ). They are largely questionnaire-based; students are asked to self-report their preferences for different approaches to learning and other activities and are then assigned one or more Learning Styles. The VARK classification is perhaps the most well-known ( Newton, 2015 ; Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2020 ), which categorizes individuals as one or more of Visual, Auditory, Read-Write and Kinesthetic learners. Other common Learning Styles classifications in the literature include those by Kolb, Honey and Mumford, Felder, and Dunn and Dunn ( Coffield et al., 2004 ; Newton, 2015 ).

In the mid-2000s two substantial reviews of the literature concluded that there was currently no evidence to support the idea that the matching of instructional methods to the supposed Learning Styles of individual students improved their learning ( Coffield et al., 2004 ; Pashler et al., 2008 ). Subsequent reviews have reached the same conclusion ( Cuevas, 2015 ; Aslaksen and Lorås, 2018 ) and there have been numerous, carefully controlled attempts to test this “matching” hypothesis (e.g., ( Krätzig and Arbuthnott, 2006 ; Massa and Mayer, 2006 ; Rogowsky et al., 2015 , 2020 ; Aslaksen and Lorås, 2019 ). The identification of supposed student Learning Style does not appear to influence the way in which students choose to study ( Husmann and O'Loughlin, 2018 ), and does not correlate with their stated preferences for different teaching methods ( Lopa et al., 2015 ).

Despite this lack of evidence, a number of studies suggest that many educators believe that matching instruction to Learning Style(s) is effective. One of the first studies to test this belief was undertaken in 2009 and looked at various statements about the brain and nervous system which are widespread but which are not supported by research evidence, for example the idea what we only use 10% of our brain, or that we are born with all the brain cells that we will ever have. The study described such statements as “neuromyths” and showed that belief in them was high, including belief in matching of instruction to Learning Styles which was reported by 82% of a sample of trainee teachers in the United Kingdom ( Howard-Jones et al., 2009 ). A number of similar studies have been conducted since, and have reached the same conclusion, with belief in Learning Styles reaching as high as 97.6% in a study of preservice teachers in Turkey ( Dündar and Gündüz, 2016 ).

This apparent widespread belief in an ineffective teaching method has caused concern amongst the education community. Part of the concern arises from a perception that the use of Learning Styles is actually harmful ( Pashler et al., 2008 ; Riener and Willingham, 2010 ; Dekker et al., 2012 ; Rohrer and Pashler, 2012 ; Dandy and Bendersky, 2014 ; Willingham et al., 2015 ). The proposed harms include concerns that learners will be pigeonholed or demotivated by being allocated into a Learning Style. For example, a student who is categorized as an “auditory learner” may conclude that there is no point in pursing studies, or a career, in visual subjects such as art, or written subjects such as journalism and so be demotivated during those classes. They might also conclude that they will be more successful in auditory subjects such as music, and thus inappropriately motivated by unrealistic expectations of success and become demotivated if that success does not materalise. It is worth noting however that many advocates of Learning Styles propose that it may be motivating for individual learners to know their supposed style ( Coffield et al., 2004 ). Another concern is that to try and match instruction to Learning Styles risks wasting resources and effort on an ineffective method. Educators are motivated to try and do the best for their learners, and a logical extension of the matching hypothesis is that educators would need to try and generate 4 or more versions of their teaching materials and activities, to match the different styles identified in whatever classification they have used. Additional concerns are that the continued belief in Learning Styles undermines the credibility of educators and education research, and creates unwarranted and unrealistic expectations of educators ( Newton and Miah, 2017 ). These unrealistic expectations could also manifest when students do not achieve the academic grades that they expect, or do not enjoy, or engage with, their learning; if students are not taught in a way that matches their supposed Learning Style, then they may attribute these negative experiences to a lack of matching and be further demotivated for future study. These concerns, and controversy, have also generated publicity in the media, both the mainstream media and in publications focused on educators ( Pullmann, 2017 ; Strauss, 2017 ; Brueck, 2018 ).

The apparent widespread acceptance of a technique that is not supported by evidence is made more striking by the fact that there are many teaching methods which demonstrably promote learning. Many of these methods are simple and easy to learn, for example the use of practice tests, or the spacing of instruction ( Weinstein et al., 2018 ). These methods are based upon an abundance of research which demonstrates how we learn (and how we don't), in particular the limitations of human working memory for the processing of new information in real time, and the use of strategies to account for those limitation (e.g., Young et al., 2014 ). Unfortunately these evidence-based techniques do not appear to be reflected in teacher-training textbooks ( National Council on Teacher Quality, 2016 ).

The lack of evidence to support the matching hypothesis is now acknowledged by some proponents of Learning Styles theory. For example Richard Felder states in a 2020 opinion piece

“ As the critics of learning styles correctly claim, the meshing hypothesis (matching instruction to students' learning styles maximizes learning) has no rigorous research support, but the existence and utility of learning styles does not rest on that hypothesis and most proponents of learning styles reject it .” ( Felder, 2020 )

“ I now think of learning styles simply as common patterns of student preferences for different approaches to instruction, with certain attributes - behaviors, attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses - being associated with each preference ”. ( Felder, 2020 )

This specific distinction between the matching/meshing hypothesis, and the existence of individual preferences, is at the heart of many studies which have examined belief in the matching hypothesis. Many studies ask about both preferences and matching. These are very different concepts, but the wording of the questions asked about them is very similar. Here for example is the original wording of the questions used in Howard-Jones et al. (2009) , which has been used in many studies since. Participants are asked to rate their agreement with the statements that;

“ Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic) ” ( Matching question) .

and, separately ,

“ Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic)” ( Preferences question) .

The similarities between these statements creates a risk that participants may not fully distinguish between them. This risk is heightened by the existence of similar-sounding but distinct concepts. For example there is evidence that individuals show fairly stable differences in certain cognitive tests, e.g., of visual or verbal ability, sometimes called a “cognitive style” (e.g., Mayer and Massa, 2003 ). There is also evidence that individuals express reasonably stable preferences for the way in which they receive information, although these preferences do not appear to be correlated with abilities ( Massa and Mayer, 2006 ). This literature, and the underlying science, is complex and multi-faceted, but the nomenclature bears a resemblance to the literature on Learning Styles and the science itself may be the genesis of many Learning Styles theories ( Pashler et al., 2008 ).

This potential overlap in concepts is reflected in studies which have examined what educators understand by the term Learning Styles. A 2020 qualitative study investigated this in detail and found a range of different interpretations of the term Learning Styles. Although the VAK/VARK classification system was the most commonly recognized classification, many educators incorrectly conflated it with other theories, such as Howard Gardeners theory of Multiple Intelligences, and learning theories such as cognitivism. There was also a large diversity in the ways in which educators attempted to account for the use of Learning Styles in their teaching practice. Many educators responded by including a diversity of approaches within their teaching, but not necessarily mapped onto specific Learning Styles instrument or with instruction specific to individuals. For example using a wide variety of audiovisual modalities, or a diversity of active approaches to learning ( Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2020 ). An earlier study reported that participants incorrectly used the term “Learning Styles” interchangeably with “Universal Design for Learning,” and other strategies that take into account individual differences (differentiation) ( Ruhaak and Cook, 2018 ). This complexity is reflected in teacher-training textbooks, which commonly refer to Learning Styles but in a variety of ways, including student motivation and preferences for learning ( Wininger et al., 2019 ). There is also a related misunderstanding about Learning Styles theory; the absence of evidence for a matching hypothesis does not mean that students should all be taught the same way, or that they do not have preferences for how they learn. Attempts to refute the matching hypothesis have been incorrectly interpreted in this way ( Newton and Miah, 2017 ).

Thus, one interpretation of the current literature and surrounding media is that, concern has arisen due to widespread belief in the efficacy of an ineffective and potentially harmful teaching technique, but the participants in studies which report on this widespread belief do not clearly understand what they are being asked, or what the intended consequences are if they disagree with what they are asked.

One set of questions to be addressed in this review then is whether the aforementioned concern is fully justified, and whether this potential confusion is reflected in the data. We examine this by using a systematic review approach to take a broader look at trends and patterns in a larger dataset. The evidence showing a lack of evidence for matching instruction to Learning Styles has been available since 2004. It would be reasonable then to expect that belief in this method would have declined since then, particularly if it is harmful. A related question is whether educators actually use Learning Styles; to generate multiple versions of teaching materials and activities would require considerable additional effort for no apparent benefit, which should also hasten the decline of Learning Styles.

With this is mind, we have conducted a Pragmatic Systematic Review. Pragmatism is an approach to research that attempts to identify results that are useful, relevant to practical issues in the real-world, rather than focusing solely on academic questions ( Duram, 2010 ; Feilzer, 2010 ). Pragmatic Evidence-based Education is an approach which combines the most useful education research evidence and relies on judgement to apply it in specific context ( Newton et al., accepted ). Thus, here we have designed research questions to help us develop and discuss findings which are, we hope, useful to the sector rather than solely of academic interest. In addition, we have included many of the usual measures of study quality associated with a systematic review. However, these are included as results as in themselves, rather than as reasons to include/exclude studies from the review. A detailed picture of the quality of studies should be useful for the sector to determine whether the findings justify the aforementioned concern, and whether it needs to be addressed.

Research Questions

1. What percentage of educators believe in the matching of instruction to Learning Styles?

2. What percentage of educators enact, or plan to enact the matching of instruction to Learning Styles?

3. Has belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles decreased over time?

4. Do evidence-based interventions reduce belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles?

5. Do studies present clear evidence that participants understand the difference between (a) matching instruction to Learning Styles and (b) preferences exhibited by learners for the ways in which they receive information?

The review followed the PRISMA guidelines for conducting and reporting a Systematic Review ( Moher et al., 2009 ), with a consideration of measures of quality and reporting for survey-based research, taken from ( Kelley et al., 2003 ; Bennett et al., 2011 ).

Eligibility Criteria, Information Sources, and Search Strategy

Education research is often published in journals that are outside the immediate field of education, but instead are linked to the subject being learned. Therefore, we used EBSCO to search the following databases: CINAHL Plus with Full Text; eBook Collection (EBSCOhost); Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts; MEDLINE; APA PsycArticles; APA PsycINFO; Regional Business News; SPORTDiscus with Full Text; Teacher Reference Center; MathSciNet via EBSCOhost; MLA Directory of Periodicals; MLA International Bibliography. We also searched PubMed and the Education Research database ERIC.

The following search terms were used: “belief in learning styles”; “believe in learning styles”; “believed in learning styles”; “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” (this is the survey question used in the original Howard-Jones paper ( Howard-Jones et al., 2009 ). Neuromyth * ; “learning styles” AND myth AND survey or questionnaire. We used advanced search settings for all sources to apply related words and to ensure that the searches looked for the terms within the full text of the articles. No date restriction was applied to the searches and so the results included items up to and including April 2020.

This returned 1,153 items. Exclusion of duplicates left 838 items. These were then screened according to the inclusion criteria (below). Screening articles on the basis of their titles identified 85 eligible items. The abstracts of these were then evaluated which resulted in 46 items for full-text screening. We also used Google Scholar to search for the same terms. Google Scholar provides better inclusion of non-journal research including of gray literature ( Haddaway et al., 2015 ) and unpublished theses that are hosted on servers outside the normal databases ( Jamali and Nabavi, 2015 ). For example, when searching for the specific survey item used in the original Howard-Jones paper ( Howard-Jones et al., 2009 ) and in many studies subsequently; “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.” This search returned zero results on ERIC and four result on PsychINFO, but returned 107 results on Google Scholar, most of which were relevant. However, all Google Scholar results had to hand screened in real-time since Google Scholar does not have the same functionality as the databases described above; it includes multiple versions of the same papers, and the search interface is limited, making it difficult to accurately quantify and report search results ( Boeker et al., 2013 ).

Study Selection

To be included in the review a study had to meet the following criteria;

• Survey educators about their belief in the matching of instruction to one or more of the Learning Styles classifications identified in aforementioned reviews ( Coffield et al., 2004 ; Pashler et al., 2008 ) and/or educators use of that matching in their teaching. This included pre-service or trainee teachers (individuals studying toward a teaching qualification).

• Report sufficient data to allow calculation of the number and percentage of respondents stating a belief that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (or use/plan to use Learning Styles theory in this way).

Exclusion criteria included the following

• Surveys of participant groups that were not educators or trainee educators.

• Only survey belief in individual learning preferences (i.e., rather than matching instruction).

• Survey other opinions about Learning Styles, for example whether they explain differences in academic abilities (e.g., Bellert and Graham, 2013 ).

• Survey belief in personalizing learning to suit preferences or other characteristics not included in the Learning Styles literature (e.g., prior educational achievement, “deep, surface or strategic learners.”

Some studies were not explicitly clear that they surveyed belief in matching instruction, but used related non-specific concepts such as the “existence of Learning Styles.” These were excluded unless additional information was available to confirm that the studies specifically surveyed belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles. For example ( Grospietsch and Mayer, 2018 ) reported surveying belief in the existence of Learning Styles. However, the content of this paper discussed knowledge acquisition in the context of matching, and stated that the research instruments was derived from Dekker et al. (2012) , and had been used in an additional paper by the same authors ( Grospietsch and Mayer, 2019 ), while a follow-up paper from the same authors described both these earlier papers as surveying belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles ( Grospietsch and Mayer, 2020 ). These two survey studies were therefore included. Another study ( Canbulat and Kiriktas, 2017 ) was not clear and no additional information was available. Two emails were sent to the corresponding author with a request for clarity, but no response was received.

Application of the inclusion criteria resulted in 33 studies being included, containing a total of 37 samples. We then went back to Google Scholar to search within those articles which cited the 33 included studies. No further studies were identified which met the inclusion criteria.

Data Collection Process

Data were independently extracted from every paper by two authors working separately (PN + AS). Extracted data were then compared and any discrepancies resolved through discussion.

The following metrics were collected where available (all data are shown in Appendix 1 ):

• The year the study was published

• Year that data were collected (where stated, and if different from publication date. If a range was stated, then the year which occupied the majority of the range was taken (e.g., Aug 2014–April 2015 was recorded as 2014).

• Country where the research was undertaken

• Publication type (peer reviewed journal, thesis, gray literature)

• Population type (e.g., academics in HE, teachers, etc.)

• Whether or not funding was received and if so where from

• Whether or not a Conflict of Interest was reported/detected

• Target population size

• Sample size

• “N” (completed returns)

• Average teaching experience of participant group

• Percentage and number of participants who stated agreement with a question regarding belief in the matching of instruction to Learning Styles, and the text of the specific question asked

• Percentage and number of participants who stated agreement with a question regarding belief that learners express preferences for how they receive information, and the text of the specific question asked

• The percentage and number of participants who stated that they did, or would, use matching to instruction in their teaching, and the text of the specific question asked

• The percentage and number of participants who stated agreement with a question regarding belief in the matching of instruction to Learning Styles after any intervention aimed at helping participants understand the lack of evidence for matching instruction to Learning Styles

Summary Measures and Synthesis of Results

Most measures are simple percentages of participants who agreed, or not, with questionnaire statements. Summary measures are then the average of these. In order to account for unequal sample size, simple weighted percentages were calculated; percentages were converted to raw numbers using the stated “N” for an individual sample. The sum of these raw numbers from each study was then divided by the sum of “N” from each study and converted to a percentage. Percentages from individual studies were used as individual data points in groups for subsequent statistical analysis, for example to compare the percentage of participants who believed in matching instruction to the percentage who actually used Learning Styles in this way.

Risk of Bias Within and Across Studies

Bias is defined as anything which leads a review to “over-estimate or under-estimate the true intervention effect” ( Boutron et al., 2019 ). In this case an “intervention effect” would be belief in, or use of, Learning Styles either before or after any intervention, or belief in a preference for receiving information in different ways.

Many concerns regarding bias are unlikely to apply here. For example, publication bias, wherein results are less likely to be reported if they are not statistically significant. Most of the data reported in the studies under consideration here are not subject to tests of significance, so this is less of a concern.

However, a number of other factors affect can generate bias within a questionnaire-type study of the type analyzed here. These factors also affect the external validity of study findings, i.e., how likely is it that study findings can be generalized to other populations. We collected the following information from each study in order to assess the external validity of the studies. These metrics were derived from multiple sources ( Kelley et al., 2003 ; Bennett et al., 2011 ; Boutron et al., 2019 ). Some were calculated from the objective data described above, whereas others were subject to judgement by the authors. In the latter case, each author made an independent judgement and then any queries were resolved through discussion.

• Sampling Method . Each study was classified into one of the following categories. Categories are drawn from the literature ( Kelley et al., 2003 ) and the studies themselves.

◦ Convenience sampling. The survey was distributed to all individuals within a specified population, and data were analyzed from those individuals who voluntarily completed the survey.

◦ Snowball sampling. Participants from a convenience sample were asked to then invite further participants to complete the survey.

◦ Unclassifiable . Insufficient information was provided to allow determination of the sampling method

◦ (no other sampling approaches were used by the included studies)

• Validity Measures

◦ Neutral Invitation . Were participants invited to the study using neutral language. Neutrality in this case was defined as not demonstrating support for, or criticism of, Learning Styles in a way that could influence the response of a participant. An example of a neutral invitation is Dekker et al. (2012) “ The research was presented as a study of how teachers think about the brain and its influence on learning. The term neuromyth was not mentioned in the information for teachers.”

◦ Learning Styles vs. styles of learning . Was sufficient information made available to participants for them to be clear that they were being asked about Learning Styles rather than styles of learning, or preferences ( Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2020 ). For example, was it explained that, in order to identify a Learning Style, a questionnaire needs to be administered which then results in learners being allocated to one or more styles, with named examples (e.g., Newton and Miah, 2017 ).

◦ Matching Instruction . If yes to above, was it also made clear that, according to the matching hypothesis, educators are supposed to tailor instruction to individual learning styles.

Additional Analyses

The following additional analyses were pre-specified in line with our initial research questions.

Has Belief in Matching Instruction to Learning Styles Decreased Over Time?

The lack of evidence to support matching instruction to Learning Styles has been established since the mid-2000s and has been the subject of substantial publicity. We might therefore hypothesize that belief in matching instruction has decreased over time, for example due to the effects of the publicity, and/or from a revision of teacher-training programmes to reflect this evidence. Three different analyses were conducted to test for evidence of a decrease.

1. A Spearman Rank Correlation test was conducted to test for a correlation between the year that the study was undertaken and the percentage of participants who reported a belief in matching instruction to learning styles. A significant negative correlation would indicate a decrease over time.

2. Belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles was compared in trainee teachers vs. practicing teachers. If belief in Learning Styles was declining then we would expect to see lower rates of belief in trainee teachers. Two samples ( Tardif et al., 2015 ; van Dijk and Lane, 2018 ) contained a mix of trainee and qualified teachers and were excluded from this analysis. The samples of teachers in Dekker et al. (2012) and Macdonald et al. (2017) both contained 94% practicing teachers and 6% trainee teachers, and so the samples were counted as practicing teachers for the purpose of this analysis.

3. A Spearman Rank Correlation test was conducted to test for a correlation between the average teaching experience of study participants and the percentage of participants who reported a belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles. If belief in matching instruction to learning styles is decreasing then we might expect to see a negative correlation.

Is There a Difference Between Belief in Learning Styles and Use of Learning Styles

The weighted percentage for each of these was calculated, and the two groups of responses were also compared.

Question Validity Analysis

In many of the studies here, participants were asked about both “preferences for learning” and “matching instruction to Learning Styles.” As described in the introduction, the wording for both questions was similar. If there was confusion about the difference between these two statements, then we would expect the pattern of response to them to be broadly similar. To test for this, we calculated a difference score for each study by subtracting the percentage of participants who believed in matching instruction to Learning Styles from the percentage who agreed that individuals have preferences for how they learn. We then conducted a one-tailed t -test to determine whether the distribution of these scores was significantly different from zero. We also compared both groups of responses.

All datasets were checked for normal distribution before analysis using a Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Non-parametric tests were used where datasets failed this test. Individual tests are described in the results section.

89.1% of Participants Believe in Matching Instruction to Learning Styles

34/37 samples reported the percentage of participants who stated agreement with an incorrect statement that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style. The simple average of these 34 data points is 86.2%. To calculate a weighted percentage, these percentages were converted to raw numbers using the stated “N.” The sum of these raw numbers was then divided by the sum of “N” from the 34 samples to create a percentage. This calculation returned a figure of 89.1%. A distribution of the individual studies is shown in Figure 1 .

Figure 1 . The percentage of participants who stated agreement that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style. Individual studies are shown with the name of the first author and the year the study was undertaken. Data are plotted as ±95% CI. Bubble size is proportional to the Log10 of the sample size.

No Evidence of a Decrease in Belief Over Time

As described in the methods we undertook three separate analyses to test for evidence that belief in Learning Styles has decreased over time. (1) A Spearman Rank correlation analysis was conducted to test for a relationship between the year a study was conducted and the percentage who reported that they believed in matching instruction to Learning Styles. No significant relationship was found ( r = −0.290, P = 0.102). (2) Belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles was compared in samples of qualified teachers ( N = 16) vs. pre-service teachers ( N = 12) using a Mann-Whitney U test. No significant difference was found ( Figure 2 ). A Mann Whitney U test returned a P value of 0.529 (U = 82). When calculating the weighted percentage from each group, belief in matching was 95.4% for pre-service teachers and 87.8% for qualified teachers. The weighted percentage for participants from Higher Education was 63.6%, although this was not analyzed statistically since these data were calculated from only three studies and these were different to the others in additional ways (see Discussion). (3) A Spearman Rank correlation analysis was conducted to test for a relationship between the mean years of experience reported by a participant group (qualified teachers) and the percentage who reported that the believed in matching instruction to Learning Styles. No significant relationship was found ( r = −0.158, P = 0.642).

Figure 2 . No difference between the percentage of Qualified Teachers vs. Pre-Service Teachers who believe in the efficacy of matching instruction to Learning Styles. The percentage of educators who agreed with each statement was compared by Mann-Whitney U test. P = 0.529.

Effect of Interventions

Four studies utilized some form of training for participants, to explain the lack of current evidence for matching instruction to Learning Styles. A pre-post test analysis was used in these studies to evaluate participants belief in the efficacy of matching instruction to Learning Styles both before and after the training. Calculating a weighted percentage revealed that, in these four studies, belief went from 78.4 to 37.1%. The effect size for this intervention effect was large (Cohens d = 3.6). Comparing these four studies using a paired t -test revealed that the difference between pre and post was significant ( P = 0.012). Results from the individual studies are shown in Figure 3 .

Figure 3 . Interventions which explain the lack of evidence to support the efficacy of matching instruction to Learning Styles are associated with a drop in the percentage of participants who report agreeing that matching is effective. Each of the four studies used a pre-post design to measure self-reported belief. The weighted percentage dropped from 78.4 to 37.1%.

Use of Learning Styles vs. Belief

Seven studies measured self-report of use, or planned use, of matching instruction to Learning Styles. Calculating the weighted average revealed that 79.7% of participants said they used, or intended to use, the matching of instruction to Learning Styles. This was compared to the percentage who reported that they believed in the efficacy of matching instruction. A Mann-Whitney U test was used since four of the seven studies did not measure belief in matching to instruction and so a paired test was not possible. No significant difference was found between the percentage of participants who reported believing that matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective (89.1%), and the percentage who used, or planned to use, it as a teaching method (79.7%) ( P = 0.146, U = 76.5). Data are shown in Figure 4 .

Figure 4 . No difference between the percentage of participants who report believing in the efficacy of matching instruction to Learning Styles, and the percentage who used, or intended to use, Learning Styles in this way. The pooled weighted percentage was 89.1 vs. 79.7%. P = 0.146 by Mann-Whitney U test.

No Difference in Belief in Preferences vs. Belief in Matching Instruction to Learning Styles

As described in the introduction, many studies compared belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles (a “neuromyth”) with a correct statement that individuals show preferences for the mode in which they receive information. Twenty-one studies questioned participants on both their belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles, and their belief that individual learners have preferences for the ways in which they receive information. A Wilcoxon matched-pairs test showed no significant difference between these two datasets ( P = 0.262, W = 57). A difference score was calculated by subtracting the percentage who believe in matching instruction from the percentage who believe that learners show preferences. The mean of these scores was 2.66, with a Standard Deviation of 8.97. A one sample t -test showed that the distribution of these scores was not significantly different from zero ( P = 0.189). The distribution of these scores is shown in Figure 5 and reveals many negative scores, i.e., where belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles is higher than a belief that individuals have preferences for how they receive information.

Figure 5 . No difference between belief in Learning Styles and Learning Preferences. (A) The percentage of participants who report believing that individuals have preferences for how the receive information, and the percentage who report believing that individuals learn better when receiving information in their preferred Learning Style. (B) The difference between these two measures, calculated for individual samples. A negative score means that fewer participants believed that students have preferences for how they received information compared to the percentage who believed that matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective.

Risk of Bias and Validity Measures

A summary table of the individual studies is shown in Table 1 . (The full dataset is available in Appendix 1 ).

Table 1 . Characteristics of included studies.

Of the 34 samples which measured belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles, 30 of them used the same question as used in Howard-Jones et al. (2009 ) (see Introduction). The four which used different questions were “Does Teaching to a Student's Learning Style Enhance Learning?” ( Dandy and Bendersky, 2014 ), “Students learn best when taught in a manner consistent with their learning styles” ( Kilpatrick, 2012 ), “How much do you agree with the thesis that there are different learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual or kinesthetic) that enable more effective learning?” ( Menz et al., 2020 ) and “A pedagogical approach based on such a distinction favors learning” (participants had been previously been asked to rate their agreement with the statement “Some individuals are visual, others are auditory”) ( Tardif et al., 2015 ).

Thirty of the 37 samples included used convenience sampling. Three of the studies used snowballing from convenience sampling, while the remaining 4 were unclassifiable; these were all from one study whose participants were recruited “ at various events related to education (e.g., book fair, pedagogy training sessions, etc.), by word of mouth, and via email invitations to databases of people who had previously enquired about information/courses on neuroscience and education” ( Gleichgerrcht et al., 2015 ). Thus, no studies used a rigorous, representative, random sample and so no further analysis was undertaken on the basis of sampling method. Some studies considered representativeness in their methodology, for example Dekker et al. (2012) reported that the local schools they approached “ could be considered a random selection of schools in the UK and NL” but the participants were then “ Teachers who were interested in this topic and chose to participate.” No information is given about the size of the population or the number of individuals to whom the survey was sent, and no demographic characteristics are given regarding the population.

Response Rate

Only five samples reported the size of the population from which the sample was drawn, and so no meaningful analysis of response rate can be drawn across the 37 samples. In one case ( Betts et al., 2019 ) the inability to calculate a response rate was due to our design rather than the study from which the data were extracted; Betts et al. (2019) reported distributing their survey to a Listserv of 65,780, but the respondents included many non-educators whose data were not relevant for our research question. It is perhaps worth noting however that their total final participant number was 929 and so their total response rate across all participant groups was 1.4%

Neutral Invitation

Nine of the 37 studies presented evidence of using a neutral invitation. None of the remaining studies provided evidence of a biased invitation; the information was simply not provided.

Briefing on Learning Styles and Matching

Two of the 37 studies reported giving participants additional information regarding Learning Styles, sufficient (in our view) for participants to be clear that they were being asked specifically about Learning Styles as defined by Coffield et al., and the matching on instruction to Learning Styles.

We find that 89.1% of 15,045 educators, surveyed from 2009 through to early 2020, self-reported a belief that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style. In every study analyzed, the majority of educators reported believing in the efficacy of this matching, reaching as high as 97.6% in one study by Dundar and colleagues, which was also the largest study in our analysis, accounting for 19% of the total sample ( Dündar and Gündüz, 2016 ).

Perhaps the most concerning finding from our analysis is that there is no evidence that this belief is decreasing, despite research going back to 2004 which demonstrates that such an approach is ineffective and potentially harmful. We conducted three separate analyses to test for evidence of a decline but found none, in fact the total percentage of pre-service teachers who believe in Learning Styles (95.4%) was higher than the percentage of qualified teachers (87.8%). This finding suggests that belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles is acquired before, or during, teacher training. Tentative evidence in support for this is a preliminary indication that belief in Learning Styles may be lower in educators from Higher Education, where teacher training is less formal and not always compulsory. In addition, Van Dijk and Lane report that overall belief in neuromyths is lower in HE although they do not report this breakdown for their data on Learning Styles ( van Dijk and Lane, 2018 ). However, the studies from Higher Education are small, and two of them are also studies where more information is provided to participants about Learning Styles (see below).

From our pragmatic perspective, there are a number of issues to consider when determining whether these findings should be a cause for alarm, and what to do about them.

The data analyzed here are mostly extracted from studies which assess teacher belief in a range of so-called neuromyths. These all use some version of the questionnaire developed by Howard-Jones and co-workers ( Howard-Jones et al., 2009 ). The value of surveying belief in neuromyths has been questioned, on the basis that, in a small sample of award-winning teachers, there did not appear to be any correlation between belief in neuromyths and receiving a teaching award ( Horvath et al., 2018 ). The Horvath study ultimately proposed that awareness of neuromyths is “irrelevant” to determining teacher effectiveness and played down concerns, expressed elsewhere in the field, that belief in neuromyths might be harmful to learners, or undermine the effectiveness of educators. We have only analyzed one element of the neuromyths questionnaire (Learning Styles), but we share some of the concerns expressed by Horvath and co-workers. The majority (30/34) of the samples analyzed here measured belief in Learning Styles using the original Howard-Jones/Dekker questionnaire. A benefit of having the same questions asked across multiple studies is that there is consistency in what is being measured. However, a problem is that any limitations with that instrument are amplified within the synthesis here. One potential limitation with the Howard-Jones question set is that the “matching” question is asked in many of the same surveys as a “belief” question, as shown in the introduction, potentially leading participants to conflate or confuse the two. Any issues may then be exacerbated by a lack of consistency in what participants understand by “matching instruction to Learning Styles”; this could affect all studies. The potential for multiple interpretations of these questions regarding Learning Styles is acknowledged by some authors (e.g., Morehead et al., 2016 ), and some studies report a lack of clarity regarding the specific meaning of Learning Styles and the matching hypothesis ( Ruhaak and Cook, 2018 ; Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2020 ). This lack of clarity is reflected also in the psychometric properties of Learning Styles instruments themselves, with many failing to meet basic standards of reliability and validity required for psychometric validation ( Coffield et al., 2004 ). In addition, we have previously founds that participants, when advised against matching instruction to Learning Styles, may conclude that this means educators should eliminate any consideration of individual preferences or variety in teaching methods ( Newton and Miah, 2017 ).

Here we found no significant differences between participant responses to the question regarding belief in matching instruction vs. the question about individual preferences, with almost half the studies analyzed actually reporting a higher percentage of participants who believed in matching instruction when compared to belief that individuals have preferences for how they receive information. This is concerning from a basic methodological perspective. The question is normally thus; “ Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) .” In any sample of learners, some individuals are going to express preferences. It may not be all learners, and those preferences may not be stable for all learners, and the question does not encompass all preferences, but the question, as asked, cannot be anything other than true.

More relevant for our research questions is the apparent evidence of a lack of clarity within the research instrument; it may not be clear to study participants what the matching hypothesis is and so it is difficult to conclude that the results truly represent belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles. This finding is tentatively supported by our analysis which shows that, in the two studies which give participants additional instructions and guidance to help them understand the matching hypothesis, belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles is much lower, a weighted average of 63.5% ( Dandy and Bendersky, 2014 ; Newton and Miah, 2017 ). However, these are both small studies, and both are conducted in Higher Education rather than school teaching, so the difference may be explained by other factors, for example the amount and nature of teacher-training given to educators in Higher Education when compared to school-teaching. It would be informative to conduct further studies in which more detail was provided to participants about Learning Styles, before they are asked whether or not they believed matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective.

However, even if we conclude that the findings represent, in part, a lack of clarity over the specific meaning of “matching instruction to Learning Styles,” this might itself still be a cause for concern. The theory is very common in teacher training and academic literature ( Newton, 2015 ; National Council on Teacher Quality, 2016 ; Wininger et al., 2019 ) and so we might hope that the meaning and use of it is clear to a majority of educators. An additional potential limitation is that the Howard-Jones question cites VARK as an example of Learning Styles, when there are over 70 different classifications. Thus we have almost no information about belief in other common classifications, such as those devised by Kolb, Honey and Mumford, Dunn and Dunn etc. ( Coffield et al., 2004 ).

79.7% of participants reported that they used, or planned to use, the approach of matching instruction to Learning Styles. This high percentage was surprising since our earlier work ( Newton and Miah, 2017 ) showed that only 33% of participants had used Learning Styles in the previous year. If Learning Styles are ineffective, wasteful of resources and even harmful, then we might predict that far fewer educators would actually use them. There are a number of caveats to the current results. There are only seven studies which report on this and all are small, accounting for <10% of the total sample. Most are not paired, i.e., they do not explicitly ask about belief in the efficacy of Learning Styles and then compare it to use of Learning Styles. The questions are often vague, broad and do not specifically represent an example of matching instruction to individual student Learning Styles as organized into one of the recognized classifications. For example “do you teach to accommodate those differences” (Learning Styles). Agreement with statements like these might reflect a belief that educators feel like they have to say they use them in order to respect any/all individual differences, rather than Learning Styles specifically. In addition this is still a self-report of a behavior, or planned behavior. It would be useful, in further work, to measure actual behavior; how many educators have actually designed distinct versions of educational resources, aligned to multiple specific individual student Learning Styles? This would appear to be a critical question when determining the impact of the Learning Styles neuromyth.

The studies give us little insight into why belief in Learning Styles persists. The theory is consistently promoted in teacher-training textbooks ( National Council on Teacher Quality, 2016 ) although there is some evidence that this is in decline ( Wininger et al., 2019 ). If educators are themselves screened using Learning Styles instruments as students at school, then it seems reasonable that they would then enter teacher-training with a view that the use of Learning Styles is a good thing, and so the cycle of belief would be self-perpetuating.

We have previously shown that the research literature generally paints a positive picture of the use of Learning Styles; a majority of papers which are “about” Learning Styles have been undertaken on the basis that matching instruction to Learning Styles is a good thing to do, regardless of the evidence ( Newton, 2015 ). Thus an educator who was unaware of, or skeptical of, the evidence might be influenced by this. Other areas of the literature reflect this idea. A 2005 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Educational Research attempted to test the effect of matching instruction to the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Model. The results were supposedly clear;

“ results overwhelmingly supported the position that matching students' learning-style preferences with complementary instruction improved academic achievement ” ( Lovelace, 2005 ).

A subsequent publication in the same journal in 2007 ( Kavale and LeFever, 2007 ) discredited the 2005 meta-analysis. A number of technical and conceptual problems were identified with the 2005 meta-analysis, including a concern that the vast majority of the included studies were dissertations supervised by Dunn and Dunn themselves, undertaken at the St. John's University Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles, run by Dunn and Dunn. At the time of writing (August 2020), the 2005 meta-analysis has been cited 292 times according to Google Scholar, whereas the rebuttal has been cited 38 times. A similar pattern played out a decade earlier, when an earlier meta-analysis by R Dunn, claiming to validate the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles model, was published in 1995 ( Dunn et al., 1995 ). This meta-analysis has been cited 610 times, whereas a rebuttal in 1998 ( Kavale et al., 1998 ), has been cited 60 times.

An early attempt by Dunn and Dunn to promote the use of their Learning Styles classification was made on the basis that teachers would be less likely to be the subject of malpractice lawsuits if they could demonstrate that they had made every effort to identify the learning styles of their students ( Dunn et al., 1977 ). This is perhaps an extreme example, but reflective of a general sense that, by identifying a supposed learning style, educators may feel they are doing something useful to help their students.

A particular issue to consider from a pragmatic perspective is that of study quality. Many of the studies did not include key indicators of the quality of survey responses ( Kelley et al., 2003 ; Bennett et al., 2011 ). For example, none of the studies use a defined, representative sample, and very few include sufficient information to allow the calculation of a response rate. From a traditional research perspective, the absence of these indicators undermines confidence in the generalizability of the findings reported here. Pragmatic research defines itself as identifying useful answers to research questions ( Newton et al., accepted ). From this perspective then, we considered it useful to still proceed with an analysis of these studies, and consider the findings holistically. It is useful for the research community to be aware of the limitations of these studies, and we report on these measures of study quality in Appendix 1 . We also think it is useful to report on the evidence, within our findings, of a lack of clarity regarding what is actually meant by the term “Learning Styles.” Taken all together these analyses could prompt further research, using a large representative sample with a high response rate, using a neutral invitation, with a clear explanation of the difference between Learning Styles and styles of Learning. Perhaps most importantly this research should focus on whether educators act on their belief, as described above.

Some of these limitations, in particular those regarding representative sampling, are tempered by the number of studies and a consistency in the findings between studies, and the overall very high rates of self-reported belief in Learning Styles. Thirty-four samples report on this question, and in all studies, the majority of participants agree with the key question. In 25 of the 34 samples, the rate of agreement is over 80%. Even if some samples were not representative, it would seem unlikely to affect the qualitative account of the main finding (although this may be undermined by the other limitations described above).

A summary conclusion from our findings then is that belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles is high and has not declined, even though there is currently no evidence to support such an approach. There are a number of methodological issues which might affect that conclusion, but when taken all together these are insufficient to completely alleviate the concerns which arise from the conclusion; a substantial majority of educators state belief in a technique for which the lack of evidence was established in 2004. In the final section of the discussion here we then consider, from a pragmatic perspective, what are the useful things that we might do with these findings, and consider what could be done to address the concerns which arise from them.

Our findings present some limited evidence that training has some effect on belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles. Only four studies looked at training, but in those studies the percentage who reported that belief in the efficacy of matching instruction to individual Learning Styles dropped from 78.4 to 37.1%. It seems reasonable to conclude that there is a risk of social desirability bias in these studies; if participants have been given training which explains the lack of evidence to support Learning Styles, then they might be reasonably expected to disagree with a statement which supports matching. Even then, for 37.1% of participants to still report that they believe this approach is effective is potentially concerning; it still represents a substantial number of educators. Perhaps more importantly these findings are, like many others discussed here, a self-report of a belief, rather than a measure of actual behavior.

There is already a substantial body of literature which identifies Learning Styles as a neuromyth, or an “urban legend.” A 2018 study analyzed the discourse used in a sample of this literature and concluded that the language used reflected a power imbalance wherein “experts” told practitioners what was true or not. A conclusion was that this language may not be helpful if we truly want to address this widespread belief in a method that is ineffective ( Smets and Struyven, 2018 ). We have previously proposed that a “debunking” approach is unlikely to be effective ( Newton and Miah, 2017 ). It takes time and effort to identify student learning styles, and much more effort to then try and design instruction to match those styles. The sorts of instructors who go to that sort of effort are likely to be motivated by a desire to help their students, and so to be told that they have been propagating a “myth” seems unlikely to be news that it is well received.

Considering these limitations from a pragmatic perspective, it does not seem that training, or debunking, is a useful approach to addressing widespread belief in Learning Styles. It is also difficult to determine whether training has been effective when we have limited data regarding the actual use of Learning Styles theory. It may be better to focus on the promotion of techniques that are demonstrably effective, such as retrieval practice and other simple techniques as described in the introduction. There is evidence that these are currently lacking from teacher training ( National Council on Teacher Quality, 2016 ). Many evidence-based techniques are simple to implement, for example the use of practice tests, the spacing of instruction, and the use of worked examples ( Young et al., 2014 ; Weinstein et al., 2018 ). Concerns exist about the generalizability of education research findings to specific contexts, but these concerns might be addressed by the use of a pragmatic approach ( Newton et al., accepted ).

In summary then, we find a substantial majority of educators, almost 90%, from samples all over the world in all types of education, report that they believe in the efficacy of a teaching technique that is demonstrably not effective and potentially harmful. There is no sign that this is declining, despite many years of work, in the academic literature and popular press, highlighting this lack of evidence. To understand this fully, future work should focus on the objective behavior of educators. How many of us actually match instruction to the individual Learning Styles of students, and what are the consequences when we do? Does it matter? Should we instead focus on promoting effective approaches rather than debunking myths?

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/ Supplementary Material , further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author/s.

Author Contributions

PN conceived and designed the study, undertook searches, extracted data, undertook analysis, drafted manuscript, and finalized manuscript. AS re-extracted data and provided critical comments on the manuscript. AS and PN undertook PRIMSA quality analyses.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Gabriella Santiago and Michael Chau who undertook partial preliminary data extraction on a subset of papers identified in an initial search. We would also like to thank Prof Greg Fegan and Dr. Owen Bodger for advice and reassurance with the analysis.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at:

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Keywords: evidence-based education, pragmatism, neuromyth, differentiation, VARK, Kolb, Honey and Mumford

Citation: Newton PM and Salvi A (2020) How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review. Front. Educ. 5:602451. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2020.602451

Received: 12 September 2020; Accepted: 25 November 2020; Published: 14 December 2020.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2020 Newton and Salvi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Philip M. Newton,

This article is part of the Research Topic

How to Improve Neuroscience Education for the Public and for a Multi-Professional Audience in Different Parts of the Globe

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Learning styles

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Sarvenaz Hatami, Learning styles, ELT Journal , Volume 67, Issue 4, October 2013, Pages 488–490,

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A learning style is not in itself an ability but rather a preferred way of using one’s abilities ( Sternberg 1994 ). Individuals have different learning styles, that is, they differ in their ‘natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills’ ( Reid 1995 : viii). Learning styles are typically bipolar entities (for example reflective versus impulsive, random versus sequential), representing two extremes of a wide continuum; however, where a learner falls on the continuum is value neutral because each extreme has its own potential advantages and disadvantages ( Dörnyei 2005 ). Moreover, although individuals may have some strong style preferences and tendencies, learning styles are not fixed modes of behaviour, and, based on different situations and tasks, styles can be extended and modified ( Reid 1987 ; Oxford 2011 ). However, the extent to which individuals can extend or shift their styles to suit a particular situation varies ( Ehrman 1996 ).

In general psychology, interest in learning styles goes back to at least the 1920s when Carl Jung proposed the theory of psychological types ( Sternberg and Grigorenko 1997 ). In the field of education, the learning style concept has been recognized since at least the mid-1970s ( Griffiths 2012 ). Subsequently, many different dimensions of learning styles have been investigated both conceptually and empirically, and numerous theories and multiple taxonomies attempting to describe how people think and learn have been proposed, often classifying individuals into distinct groups (for example visual versus auditory, global versus analytic, inductive versus deductive). Furthermore, various learning style instruments (for example written surveys) have been developed for both research and pedagogical purposes (for a critical review of some of the most influential models and instruments, see Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone 2004 )).

According to Sternberg and Grigorenko (op.cit. : 702), there are three main motivations for the interest in the study of styles: ‘providing a link between cognition and personality; understanding, predicting, and improving educational achievement; and improving vocational selection, guidance, and possibly, placement’.

While there is ample evidence that individuals differ in how they prefer to take in, process, and acquire new information, the educational implications of such preferences have been a source of great controversy among researchers and educators over the years ( Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork 2009 ). Proponents of learning styles assessment in instruction believe that learning styles can be measured and used as a valuable teaching tool inside the classroom (for example Sternberg, Grigorenko, and Zhang 2008 ). According to these scholars, by diagnosing students’ learning styles and matching them to teaching methods (for example for a ‘visual learner’, presenting information through pictorial illustrations), learning can be greatly enhanced. Other scholars have rejected the value of learning styles in educational practice and claim that tailoring instruction to students’ individual learning styles does not lead to better learning outcomes (for example Stahl 1999 ; Willingham 2005 ).

This same controversial situation exists in the area of second language acquisition (SLA). A number of research studies in SLA have addressed the relationship between learning styles and second language (L2) achievement; however, these studies have generally found only a weak relationship ( Ellis 2008 ). Thus, based on what research in SLA has revealed so far, the question of whether or not learning styles are strongly associated with L2 acquisition and should therefore be considered in L2 teaching cannot be answered with certainty. As Ellis (ibid. : 671) states, ‘at the moment there are few general conclusions that can be drawn from the research on learning style’. According to Riding (2000 : 365), this vague situation is due to a number of serious problems, in particular ‘there being too many labels purporting to being different styles, the use of ineffective assessment methods, and the lack of a clear distinction between style and other constructs such as intelligence and personality’.

Further research with more appropriate methodologies is needed to validate the use of learning styles assessment in instruction ( Pashler et al . op.cit. ). Until this occurs, however, as Chapelle (1992 : 381) states, we simply cannot disregard the concept of learning style, ‘which express[es] some of our intuitions about students and which facilitate[s] appreciation for the divergent approaches to thinking and learning’.

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The relationship between learning styles and academic performance in TURKISH physiotherapy students

  • Nursen İlçin   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Murat Tomruk 1 ,
  • Sevgi Sevi Yeşilyaprak 1 ,
  • Didem Karadibak 1 &
  • Sema Savcı 1  

BMC Medical Education volume  18 , Article number:  291 ( 2018 ) Cite this article

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Learning style refers to the unique ways an individual processes and retains new information and skills. In this study, we aimed to identify the learning styles of Turkish physiotherapy students and investigate the relationship between academic performance and learning style subscale scores in order to determine whether the learning styles of physiotherapy students could influence academic performance.

The learning styles of 184 physiotherapy students were determined using the Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scales. Cumulative grade point average was accepted as a measure of academic performance. The Kruskal-Wallis test was conducted to compare academic performance among the six learning style groups (Independent, Dependent, Competitive, Collaborative, Avoidant, and Participant).

The most common learning style was Collaborative (34.8%). Academic performance was negatively correlated with Avoidant score ( p  < 0.001, r  = − 0.317) and positively correlated with Participant score ( p  < 0.001, r  = 0.400). The academic performance of the Participant learning style group was significantly higher than that of all the other groups ( p  < 0.003).


Although Turkish physiotherapy students most commonly exhibited a Collaborative learning style, the Participant learning style was associated with significantly higher academic performance. Teaching strategies that encourage more participant-style learning may be effective in increasing academic performance among Turkish physiotherapy students.

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Learning can be defined as permanent changes in behavior induced by life [ 1 ]. According to experiential learning theory, learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” [ 2 , 3 ].

Facilitating the learning process is the primary aim of teaching [ 4 ]. Understanding the learning behavior of students is considered to be a part of this process [ 5 ]. Therefore, the concept of learning styles has become a popular topic in recent literature, with many theories about learning styles put forward to better understand the dynamic process of learning [ 2 , 3 ].

Learning style refers to an individual’s preferred way of processing new information for efficient learning [ 6 ]. Rita Dunn described the concept of learning style as “a unique way developed by students when he/she was learning new and difficult knowledge” [ 7 ]. Learning style is about how students learn rather than what they learn [ 1 ]. The learning process is different for each individual; even in the same educational environment, learning does not occur in all students at the same level and quality [ 8 ]. Research has shown that individuals exhibit different approaches in the learning process and a single strategy or approach was unable to provide optimal learning conditions for all individuals [ 9 ]. This may be related to students’ different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, interests, ambitions, levels of motivation, and approaches to studying [ 10 ]. To improve undergraduate education, educators should become more aware of these diverse approaches [ 11 ]. Learning styles may be useful to help students and educators understand how to improve the way they learn and teach, respectively.

Determining students’ learning styles provides information about their specific preferences. Understanding learning styles can make it easier to create, modify, and develop more efficient curriculum and educational programs. It can also encourage students’ participation in these programs and motivate them to gain professional knowledge [ 9 ]. Therefore, determining learning style is quite valuable in order to achieve more effective learning. Researching learning styles provides data on how students learn and find answers to questions [ 5 ].

Considering the potential problems encountered in the undergraduate education of physiotherapists, determining the learning style of physiotherapy students may enable the development of strategies to improve the learning process [ 12 ]. Studies on learning styles in the field of physiotherapy have mostly been conducted in developed countries such as Canada and Australia [ 13 , 14 ]. A study conducted in Australia examined the learning styles of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech pathology students. The results of this study suggest that optimal learning environment should also be taken into consideration while researching how students learn. The authors also stated that future research was needed to investigate correlations between learning styles, instructional methods, and the academic performance of students in the health professions [ 14 ].

To the best of our knowledge, there are no prior publications in the literature that report Turkish physiotherapy students’ learning styles. Furthermore, previous studies mostly used Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI), Marshall & Merritts’ LSI, or Honey & Mumford’s Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ) to assess learning styles [ 5 , 13 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 ]. Some of these studies also suggested that learning behavior and styles should be investigated using different inventories [ 5 ]. Moreover, a scale that was indicated as valid and reliable for Turkish population was needed to accurately determine the learning styles of Turkish physiotherapy students. Therefore, we opted to use the Grascha-Riechmann Learning Style Scales (GRLSS) to assess the learning styles of physiotherapy students, which will be a first in the literature.

Learning style preferences are influential in learning and academic achievement, and may explain how students learn [ 19 ]. Previous studies have demonstrated a close association between learning style and academic performance [ 20 , 21 ]. Learning styles have been identified as predictors of academic performance and guides for curriculum design. The aim of this study was to determine whether learning style preferences of physiotherapy students could affect academic performance by identifying the learning styles of Turkish physiotherapy students and assessing the relationship between these learning styles and the students’ academic performance. Since physiotherapy education mainly consists of practice lessons and clinical practice and mostly requires active student participation, we hypothesized that physiotherapy students with a Collaborative learning style according to the GRLSS would have higher academic performance.

A cross-sectional survey design using a convenience sample was used. The study population consisted of 488 physiotherapy students who were officially registered for the 2013–2014 academic year in Dokuz Eylul University (DEU) School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation. A minimum sample size of 68 participants was calculated with 95% confidence interval and 80% power by using “Epi Info Statcalc Version 6”. Inclusion criteria were (i) age ≥ 17 years, (ii) official registration in DEU School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation for the 2013–2014 academic year, (iii) being a first-, second-, third-, or fourth-year undergraduate student of physiotherapy, (iv) ability to read, write, and understand Turkish, and (v) being willing and able to participate in the study. Exclusion criteria were (i) unwilling to participate in the study, (ii) inability to read, write, and understand Turkish. The questionnaire was distributed to the physiotherapy students in a classroom setting during the final exam week of the academic year. Due to the absence of participants who did not attend final exams and were not actively attending classes (non-attendance students), questionnaires were distributed to 217 students in total.

184 physiotherapy students with a mean ± SD age of 21.52 ± 1.75 years participated in the study. Participants were informed verbally and in writing about the purpose of the study and the survey that would be implemented. A research assistant was available in the classroom to provide assistance if required. Demographic characteristics (age, gender, undergraduate year) comprised the first section of the questionnaire, followed by the GRLSS to assess learning style.

Cumulative grade point average (CGPA) shown on the students’ transcripts was used as the measure of academic performance. The students’ CGPAs at the end of the 2013–2014 academic year were obtained from the records held in the student affairs unit of the DEU School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation. CGPA was derived by multiplying the grade point (out of 100) with the credit units for each module or course and then dividing the total sum by the total credit units taken in the program.

The local university ethics committee provided ethical approval and informed consent was obtained from the participants before inclusion. Ethical protocol number was 1432-GOA.

Data collection

Grasha-riechmann student learning style scales.

The GRLSS is a five-point Likert-type scale ( response format: strongly disagree, moderately disagree, undecided, moderately agree, strongly agree ) consisting of 60 items which was designed based on student interviews and survey data [ 22 , 23 ]. In accordance with the response to student attitudes toward learning, classroom activities, teachers and peers, six learning styles were defined [ 24 ]. Learning styles that form subscales are the Independent, Avoidant, Collaborative, Dependent, Competitive, and Participant learning styles [ 24 , 25 ]. The six main styles in the GRLSS are described in Table  1 and the scoring of the GRLSS is shown in Table  2 [ 23 , 24 ]. The GRLSS was adapted to Turkish in 2003 and found to have good reliability [ 25 ] (Table  3 ).

The learning styles of the physiotherapy students in the current study were identified according to GRLSS and the students were grouped based on their predominant (highest scoring) style. The mean and median academic performance values of each group were calculated and the significance of the differences between groups was statistically analyzed.

Statistical analysis

Statistical analyses were performed to compare academic performances among the learning style groups and test the significance of pairwise differences. All data were analyzed using Statistical Package for Social Science software (IBM Corporation, version 20.0 for Windows). Descriptive statistics were summarized as frequencies and percentages for categorical variables. Continuous variables were presented as mean and standard deviation when normally distributed and as median and interquartile range when not normally distributed. Mann-Whitney U test was used for between-group analyses of abnormally distributed variables. The variables were investigated using visual (histograms, probability plots) and analytical methods (Kolmogorov-Smirnov/Shapiro-Wilk test) to determine whether they showed normal distribution. As parameters were not normally distributed, the correlation coefficients and their significance were calculated using Spearman test. Strength of correlation was defined as very weak for r values between 0.00–0.19, weak for r values between 0.20–0.39, moderate for r values between 0.40–0.69, strong for r values between 0.70–0.89, and very strong for r values over 0.90 [ 26 ]. As the academic performance was not normally distributed, the Kruskal-Wallis test was conducted to compare this parameter among the six learning style groups. The Mann-Whitney U Test was performed to test the significance of pairwise differences using Bonferroni correction to adjust for multiple comparisons. An overall 5% type-I error level was used to infer statistical significance ( p  < 0.05).

A total of 217 physiotherapy students were invited to participate in the study. Eighteen students refused to participate. Fifteen surveys were discarded due to missing item responses. As a result, data obtained from 184 students were used for the analyses. Overall response rate was 84.8%.

Demographic characteristics (gender, year) and learning style preferences are presented in Table  4 . The most common learning styles among the physiotherapy students according to the GRLSS were Collaborative (34.8%) and Independent (22.3%). The results of GRLSS subscale scores were given in Table  5 . The highest subscale score was Collaborative (Mean ± SD = 3.57 ± 0.62), while Competitive score was the lowest (Mean ± SD = 2.81 ± 0.69).

A moderate positive correlation between academic performance and Participant score was found (p < 0.001, r = 0.400) . A weak negative correlation was also found between academic performance and Avoidant score (p < 0.001, r = − 0.317) . No other significant correlation between academic performance and subscale scores was found (Table  6 ) .

When students were grouped according to learning styles, between-group (Kruskal-Wallis) analysis showed a significant difference in the academic performance of the groups (p < 0.001). Post-hoc (Mann-Whitney U) analysis revealed significantly higher academic performance in the Participant learning style group compared to all of the other learning style groups (Independent, Avoidant, Collaborative, Dependent, and Competitive) (Table  7 ).

The current study assessed the learning styles of Turkish physiotherapy students, and investigated the relationship between their learning styles and academic performance. The results revealed that the Collaborative learning style was most common among the Turkish physiotherapy students. However, students with Participant learning style had statistically higher academic performance when compared to the others. In addition, we found a positive correlation between Participant score and academic performance of the students, which supports the previous finding, while a negative correlation was found between Avoidant score and academic performance. In the case of physiotherapy students in this study, the emphasis should be on developing Participant and Collaborative learning skills. This might involve providing more class activities, discussions, and group projects.

The physiotherapy program at DEU has a combined case study-based and traditional style curriculum including lectures, tutorials, seminars, case study presentations, and supervised small group clinical practice in the hospital and at other health centers. Learning tasks and assessment methods include individual written examinations, practical examinations, homework and assignments as well as collaborative oral presentation and research projects. In the physiotherapy discipline, clinical practice improves students’ occupational skills and is seen as a crucial part of the teaching process [ 12 , 27 ]. Similarly, the teaching and learning approach at DEU is heavily based on practical training and requires active participation and group work. This could be a reason for the greater preference for Collaborative learning style.

Previous studies have indicated that physiotherapy students prefer abstract learning styles [ 28 ] and have desirable approaches to studying [ 29 ]. Canadian and American physiotherapy students preferred Converger (40 and 37% respectively) or Assimilator (35 and 28% respectively) learning styles [ 13 ]. According to descriptions of the learning style categories in the Kolb LSI, Convergers enjoy learning through activities like homework problems, computer simulations, field trips, and reports and demonstrations presented by others. On the other hand, Assimilators prefer attending lectures, reading textbooks, doing independent research and watching demonstrations by instructors when learning. In our study, Turkish physiotherapy students preferred Collaborative (34.8%) or Independent (22.3%) learning styles. According to GRLSS, Collaboratives prefer lectures with small group discussions and group projects (similar to Assimilators), while Independents prefer self-pace instruction and studying alone (similar to Convergers). Therefore, it can be concluded that learning styles of Canadian, American, and Turkish physiotherapy students are similar to each other.

Katz and Heimann used the Kolb LSI in their study and reported average learning style scores instead of the number of students in each of the four learning styles. They reported Converger as the “average” learning style for physiotherapy students [ 30 ]. In our study, the largest proportion of the physiotherapy students had a Collaborative learning style. Moreover, the average learning style was also Collaborative, with the highest average score.

Competitive learning style was the least frequently preferred (5.4%) by Turkish physiotherapy students in our study. The low preference for Competitive learning style indicates that students were less likely to compete with other students in the class to get a grade. Mountford et al. assessed learning styles of Australian physiotherapy students using Honey & Mumford’s LSQ and found that the Pragmatic learning style was the least preferred. According to LSQ, Pragmatists tend to see problem solving as a chance to rise to a challenge [ 31 ]. Considering that both Competitives and Pragmatists like challenges, the least frequently preferred styles of Australian and Turkish physiotherapy students seem to be similar to each other.

Alsop and Ryan pointed out that “personal awareness of learning styles and confidence in communicating this are first steps to achieve an optimal learning environment” [ 32 ]. According to Kolb’s theory, a preferred learning style affects a person’s problem solving ability [ 13 ]. Wessel et al. also stated that in order to provide students the best learning opportunity, educators must be aware of the learning styles and students’ ability to solve problems [ 13 ]. Indeed, evidence supporting these views can be found in the literature. Previous studies showed that students who were aware of their learning style had improved academic performance [ 33 , 34 ]. Nelson et al. found that college students who were tested on their learning style and were given appropriate education according to their learning style profile achieved higher academic performance than other students [ 33 ]. Linares also investigated learning styles in different health care professions (physiotherapy, occupational therapy, physician assistants, nursing and medical technology) and found a significant relationship between learning style and students’ readiness to undertake self-directed learning [ 15 ]. However, Hess et al. found no association between learning style and problem-solving ability in their study [ 35 ].

While planning this study, we hypothesized that students with a Collaborative learning style would have higher academic performance. Although the Collaborative learning style was the most common, these students did not show significantly higher academic performance. However, students with Participant learning style had statistically higher academic performance when compared to the other learning style groups. Characteristics specific to the Participant learning style are enjoyment from attending and participating in class and interest in class activities and discussions. These students enjoy opportunities to discuss class materials and readings. This may suggest that increasing in-class activities and discussions, which encourage participant-style learning, is needed to increase academic performance. Another approach would be to adapt teaching strategies according to the characteristics of Collaboratives, as they represented the largest body of students. Creating a convenient environment in which students could spend more time sharing and cooperating with their teacher and peers may facilitate collaborative learning, thus enhancing academic performance. Organizing the curriculum to include small group discussions within lectures and incorporate group projects may also be beneficial. As Ford et al. stated, “ Identification teaching profiles could be used to tailor the collaborative structure and content delivery ” [ 36 ].

The most important reason for determining learning style is to create a proper teaching strategy [ 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 ]. However, there seems to be no exact relationship between students’ learning style and the curriculum of a program described in the literature [ 13 ]. Learning style alone is not the only factor that may influence a learning situation. Many factors (educational and cultural context of university, individual awareness, life experience, other learning skills, effect of educator, motivation, etc.) may influence the learning process [ 31 ]. Therefore, expecting a simple relationship between learning style and teaching strategy may not be realistic. Moreover, the review of Pashler et al. showed that there was virtually no evidence that people learn better when teaching style is tailored to match students’ preferred learning style [ 41 ]. Nevertheless, future studies investigating physiotherapy educators’ teaching styles and their association with learning styles and academic performance may elucidate this complex issue.

The major strength of this study is that, to the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study investigating the learning styles of Turkish physiotherapy students with relation to academic performance.

There were some limitations to this study. It should be noted that learning style is a self-reported measure that can change based on experience and the demands of a situation. Therefore, it is subjective and able to provide adaptive behavior [ 42 ]. It should also be kept in mind that the conclusions of this study could be limited due to the cross-sectional design, and respondent bias may be an issue because convenience sampling was used to recruit participants. One possible limitation of the study could be the fact that the three of the scale reliabilities reported for GRLSS was poor.

This study investigated the learning styles of physiotherapy students in only one university (DEU) and this could preclude the generalization of our results. Subsequent studies should include students enrolled in the physiotherapy departments of multiple universities in Turkey to achieve an accurate geographical representation. Moreover, future studies on this topic should be conducted in collaboration with universities in Europe, with which we share a cultural connection.

The results of this study showed that the Collaborative learning style was most common among Turkish physiotherapy students. On the other hand, the physiotherapy students with Participant learning style had significantly higher academic performance than students with other learning styles. Teaching strategies consistent with the unique characteristics of the Participant learning style may be an effective way to increase academic performance of Turkish physiotherapy students. Incorporating more in-class activities and discussions about class material and readings may facilitate Participant learning, thus impacting academic performance positively. Another approach may be to adopt teaching strategies that target the predominant Collaborative learning style. Creating a convenient environment for students to share and cooperate with their teacher and peers and organizing the curriculum to include more small group discussions and group projects may also be supportive. Future studies should investigate physiotherapy educators’ teaching styles and their relations with learning styles and academic performance.


Cumulative Grade Point Average

Dokuz Eylul University

Grascha-Riechmann Learning Style Scales

Learning Style Inventory

Learning Style Questionnaire

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The authors like to thank all physiotherapy students who participated in this study.

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School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation, Dokuz Eylul University, 35340, Inciralti, Izmir, Turkey

Nursen İlçin, Murat Tomruk, Sevgi Sevi Yeşilyaprak, Didem Karadibak & Sema Savcı

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Nİ conducted the literature search for the background of the study, analyzed and interpreted statistical data, and wrote the majority of the article. MT conducted the literature search, collected data for the study, analyzed statistical data, and contributed to writing the article. SSY and DK were involved in study planning, data processing, and revising the article. SS contributed to study design and oversaw the study. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Nursen İlçin, PT, PhD.

İlçin graduated from Dokuz Eylul University, School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation in 1998. She received her Master’s degree in 2002 and PhD in 2009 from Dokuz Eylül University. She is currently a associate professor in Geriatric Physiotherapy Department.

Murat Tomruk, PT, PhD.

Tomruk graduated from the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation at Dokuz Eylul University in 2009. He received his MSci degree in Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy in 2013 and his PhD degree in 2018. His doctorate thesis was about manual therapy. He works as a research assistant at Dokuz Eylul University since 2011.

Sevgi Sevi Yeşilyaprak, PT, PhD.

Sevgi Sevi Yeşilyaprak’s speciality is shoulder rehabilitation. Her primary research interests are orthopaedic and sports injuries of the shoulder, shoulder biomechanics, proprioception, and exercise. She has one active and two completed grants. Yeşilyaprak teaches courses on musculoskeletal physiotherapy including sports physiotherapy, musculoskeletal disorders, therapeutic exercises, exercise prescription, and manual physiotherapy techniques.

Didem Karadibak, PT, PhD.

Karadibak obtained her BS degree in Physiotherapy from Hacettepe University in 1992 and her MS and PhD degrees from the Physical Therapy Program of the Institute of Health and Sciences, Dokuz Eylul University in 1998 and 2003, respectively. She is currently a professor of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation in the Dokuz Eylul University School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation.

Sema Savcı, PT, PhD.

Savcı obtained her BS degree in Physiotherapy from Hacettepe University in 1988 and her MS and PhD degrees from the Physical Therapy Program of the Institute of Health and Sciences, Hacettepe University in 1990 and 1995, respectively. She is currently a professor and serving as the Head of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation in the Dokuz Eylul University School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation.

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Written ethical approval was taken from the Dokuz Eylül University’s local ethics committee (approval number 1432-GOA) and written informed consent obtained from all the participants.

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İlçin, N., Tomruk, M., Yeşilyaprak, S.S. et al. The relationship between learning styles and academic performance in TURKISH physiotherapy students. BMC Med Educ 18 , 291 (2018).

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Learning strategies and styles as a basis for building personal learning environments

  • Blanca J. Parra 1  

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This paper presents the results and reflections from a study conducted on students using the e-learning mode from the Panamerican University Foundation. The aim of the study was to identify learning strategies and styles as a basis for building personal learning environments (PLEs). This study was conducted under the parameters of a mixed research approach, which uses quantitative and qualitative techniques, as well as an interpretative approach. The main learning styles found were active, visual and global. In relation to learning strategies, a tendency towards web searching as well as schemes and summary preparation was found. Although these are the prevailing trends, the study allowed us to recognize that each person learns differently; their style and learning strategies are influenced by the environment and the resources at their disposal. This enables educational institutions to identify and make a available the techno-pedagogical tools and strategies required to strengthen and build PLEs that are more assertive and better adapted to the needs and interests of students.


Education, over time and through the challenges of society, has undergone several transformations in educational communities, giving rise to the need to propose new strategies and resources that promote, encourage and strengthen learning, making it a meaningful and enriching experience for the various stakeholders in the process (Carrillo et al. 2012 ). When asked about new educational proposals, we are faced with a number of possibilities, ranging from traditional teacher-centered approaches to student-centered approaches; in the case of the latter, the student plays a fully participatory role and control stance, not only in the process but also in the selection of content and activities, as suggested by Coomey and Stephenson (cited by Casamayor et al., 2008 ) on the grid of e-learning educational models.

Segmentation and classification of data from the interview

Among the different concepts that have gained strength in recent years is the personal learning environment (PLE), which refers to innovative spaces that encourage the generation of knowledge through the integration of different elements, both pedagogical and technological, and allow students to take control of their learning process so that they can set their own goals, manage their work and communicate with others.

Cabero et al. ( 2011 ) suggest, with regard to the origins of PLE, that there are two approaches, a pedagogical one and a technological one. The pedagogical one is understood as a change in educational methodology that promotes self-learning through the use of resources available on the network. It is a system that focuses on the student and allows him/her to take control of his/her learning process to set his/her own goals, manage his/her activity process and communicate with others.

The technological approach refers to the PLE as a software application comprising a repository of content and different management and communication tools.

Meanwhile, Adell and Castañeda ( 2010 ) do not directly relate PLEs to technological resources, and indicate that all types of variables are involved in them (home, school and friends, among others), because the processes of learning achieved in groups and in interaction with others. Ron Lubenskyv says that PLEs have a facility for individuals to access, add, configure and manipulate digital artifacts or tools for continuous learning experiences (cited by Santamaría 2010 ).

However, PLE implementation is not always achieved successfully by culture and traditional methods of teaching and learning in the formative stage: institutions provide resources and implement, in some cases, innovative teaching strategies for learning, but to what extent do they respond to the needs and learning styles of the students?

This study has been designed to answer this question; it takes into account the different learning styles and strategies for effective PLE construction.

Problem statement

A constant concern of tutors, consultants and, in general, educational institutions offering education in e-learning mode is related to how students acquire, analyze and share knowledge. Many of the resources provided in virtual learning platforms are not adjusted to the needs and learning styles of each person, and the potential of resources is not taken advantage of to build PLEs.

On the other hand, students are unaware of their learning styles and the effectiveness of the strategies used in the education process.

Hence the need arises to implement strategies and resources aimed at strengthening the teaching-learning process, enabling students to enhance their skills and abilities by identifying their learning strategies and styles. This is the key focus of this research, based on the following question:

How can students’ learning strategies and styles, in e-learning mode, be identified so that they can contribute to the assertive construction of their PLEs?


One of the challenges of education in Colombia, listed in the Ten-Year Education Plan 2006–2016, is to ensure access to, and use and critical appropriation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as tools for learning, creativity, and scientific, technological and cultural progress, such that it allows for human development and active participation in the knowledge society. There is also a need to promote curricular renovation of school levels and the basic functions of education and research and innovation, and to establish content and assessment practices that encourage learning and the social construction of knowledge according to the stages of development, expectations and individual and collective needs of students within their context and the world today (Ministerio de Educación Nacional de Colombia 2006 ).

At this stage and in order to contribute to the education plan, it is important for educational institutions to have the resources and didactic tools required to enable students to identify and enhance their learning styles and strategies, providing educational materials that respond to their needs and encourage their active participation. In this way, we can contribute to a genuine process of personalized and student-centered learning, under the premise that every individual learns and constructs knowledge differently based on their cognitive abilities, interests and preconceptions, hence the importance of promoting active, dynamic and collaborative learning, sharing experiences and generating new knowledge, supported by the use of ICTs. This will be possible if educational institutions have techno-pedagogical resources and strategies adapted to the learning styles of each student, and through the identification of these, more assertive PLEs can be built that are tailored to their needs and interests.

The outcomes of this research are instruments that can be applied to students using the e-learning mode in order to perform continuous monitoring to identify students’ learning styles and develop strategies ranging from the very process of mentoring to the development and availability of resources on the platform.

The aim of this study is to identify the learning strategies and styles of students using the e-learning mode as a basis for building PLEs. To that end, the following objectives have been set:

To recognize those elements that affects the construction of a PLE.

To conduct an analysis of the studies and techniques in order to identify the learning strategies and styles of students in different learning contexts.

To determine techniques and adapt instruments in order to identify the learning strategies and styles of students using the e-learning mode.

This study was conducted under the parameters of a mixed research approach, which uses quantitative and qualitative techniques, as well as an interpretive approach. Hernández et al. ( 2010 ) states that joint investigations refer to a process of collecting, analyzing and linking quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or a series of investigations to answer a research question. This type of research allows the object of study to be analyzed in its natural context, from the point of view of the participants as they perceive it. On the other hand, the use of the interpretive approach involves the description and analysis of learning styles and strategies based on the attitudes, behavior, cognitive features, and the emotional, physiological and procedural characteristics of students using the e-learning mode (Rodríguez & Valldeoriola 2009 ).

The study was conducted with undergraduate students from the Panamerican University Foundation (Unipanamericana), who were taking their course of studies in e-learning mode. In the second half of 2013, during which the research instruments were applied, there were 285 students enrolled on the various programs offered by Unipanamericana in e-learning mode.

A non-probabilistic sample was used for this study. Questionnaires were sent to all students using the e-learning mode and 54 participated in the study, corresponding to 19 % of total students enrolled. Tables  1 and 2 below detail the universe and the corresponding sample:

Research techniques

A combination of techniques allowed us to collect the necessary data to answer the research question, such as the survey, in-depth interviews and a literature review.

The survey technique was conducted via online resources, where an electronic questionnaire was used to collect structured data through closed dichotomous questions, multiple choice questions and others with alternative ordinate answers of the Likert type. The latter were used to identify the students’ learning strategies.

The survey aimed to identify the learning strategies and styles of students using the e-learning mode at Unipanamericana.

The interviews allowed the respondents’ ideas, beliefs and assumptions (Meneses & Rodríguez 2011 ) of learning strategies used and their impact on the learning process to be approached and understood.

The purpose of the interview was to understand the students’ conceptions of learning strategies and to identify the strategies they use and their impact on the learning process.

The interview was semi-structured since it was conducted from a script that allowed the interviewer to prepare information and familiarize him/herself with the topic being investigated. The central questions were open, which encouraged the interviewee to express flexible and comprehensive answers.

The literature review involved finding research and articles related to the learning strategies and styles of students in different learning contexts. The search was performed in specialized databases using search criteria to filter the most relevant and recent research publications.

Types of research tool

As an instrument of the survey technique, a questionnaire was used. This was constructed on the basis of a literature review of studies and techniques that helped to identify the learning strategies and styles of students in different learning contexts. The CHAEA tests were analyzed; CHAEA tests are the Spanish version of the LSQ tool proposed by Honey and Mumford (1988, cited by Alonso, & Gallego, 2006 )) and the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire by Felder and Soloman ( 2008 ). Likewise, the CEVEAPEU questionnaire was analyzed, which is used to assess the learning strategies of university students (Gargallo et al. 2009 ). A process of selection, classification and adaptation of the questions was conducted and new questions were asked; all of these focused on the aim of this study.

For the interview technique, a script was made to allow the researchers to direct their questions according to the study aim and variables. In addition to the script there was a protocol giving the interviewer general guidelines to consider before, during and after the interview.

The script consisted of 18 questions, of which 6 were closed and corresponded to the respondents’ general information, and a section intended for respondents to give their consent to participating in the process of data gathering and dissemination within the framework of this study. There were also 12 open questions focusing on learning strategies. Thus the relationship of the study objectives to the research question was evident. Finally, a section was assigned to the interviewer to assess the interview. Some of the issues presented in the script are based on scripts validated and implemented in other research: the development of an oral source (Pantaleón & Rey 2006 ) and the design of a system for the management and control of the production of content and learning objects, for e-learning at Unipanamericana (Parra, 2010 ).

On the other hand, the data obtained from the literature review were listed in a matrix outlining the most important aspects of selected publications (general topic or title of the project consulted, authors, year, country, educational institution and funding body, specialist database, URL data, document type, search criteria used, keywords, synthesis and contribution), thus allowing their objects of study to be contextualized, their status to be identified, their results compared and the respective document analysis to be performed.

Data gathering was conducted electronically as follows:

The questionnaire was made available on Google Drive and sent to students via the institution’s e-mail system. It was addressed to all students and was notified through different electronic media.

For the interviews, three students were selected from the active programs in e-learning mode at Unipanamericana, who voluntarily chose to participate in it. The interviews were conducted individually via Skype, following protocol and script, designed for the application of the instrument, where the interviewer created a bond of trust with the interviewees and thus achieved an in-depth interview.

Learning styles of students using the e-learning mode at Unipanamericana

Table  3 shows the predominant learning styles of the 54 students surveyed, defined from the model of learning styles by Felder and Silverman:

Following Felder and Silverman’s bipolar category, in Category 1, the active learning style predominated (89 % of the students surveyed), according to the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (Felder & Soloman, 2008 .); the students in whom this style predominates tend to retain and understand information dynamically through dialogues or by explaining to others, and they are generally more likely to work in groups. For their part, reflective students tend to think about and process information in silence before giving their point of view and generally prefer individual work. Of the respondents, 9 % can be found in this category, and 2 % in both learning styles.

In category 2, the intuitive style predominated (44 % of the students surveyed), while only 15 % of the respondents can be found in the sensitive style. However, the prevalence of both learning styles is evident (41 % of the students surveyed). Sensitive students tend towards fact-based learning through problem solving and memorization of situations via laboratories and workshops, whereas intuitive students are often interested in discovery, exploration and connections, are innovative and often have a flair for abstraction and mathematical operations.

In category 3, the visual learning style predominated (83 % of the students surveyed), that is, they are students who better remember what they see (pictures, graphs, charts, timelines, videos and flow charts, among others), while only 7 % of the respondents can be found in the verbal style. Verbal students generally tend to learn best through lectures, readings, discussions and other spoken or written expressions. However, the prevalence of both learning styles is 9 %. This implies that, in 92 % of the sample, the visual style predominates, something that is favored in e-learning since it has several educational resources and graphic materials.

Finally, in category 4, the predominance of the global style is evident (87 % of the students surveyed); they are students who tend to learn in blocks without connections, are often able to solve complex problems quickly, but may struggle to explain how they do so. Of the respondents, 13 % can be found in the sequential style. The latter style is characterized by linear learning, following logical steps in search of solutions to problems, and through connections. Among the students surveyed, the global and sequential styles were not found to exist equitably.

In relation to the gender variable, and according to the results presented in Table  4 , the predominant learning style among women is global with 86 %, followed by the visual and active with 79 % each. Meanwhile, among men, the predominant learning style is active with 100 %, followed by visual and global with 88 % each. This indicates that there is a higher prevalence for the same learning styles in both genders.

Learning strategies of students using the e-learning mode

The interview data were categorized retaining the classification of learning strategies (Gargallo et al. 2009 ) and, from these, the following scheme was generated: (Fig. 1 ).

Respondents expressed their interest in individual work; it allows them to optimize time because of the technical and timing difficulties involved in synchronous meetings. However, in group work they are characterized as leaders and active. Among the strategies for organizing information, the most commonly used are the development of conceptual maps, summaries, keywords and data banks. A technique used to optimize learning is the association of terms. In addition, those interviewed agreed that they are methodical and linearly follow instructions when undertaking an activity.

When they have doubts about a topic, the respondents stated that they initially turn to Internet sources and only turn to teachers when they require clarification of the instructions to undertake academic activities. As for the work environment, there is a preference for spaces of silence and tranquility at night-time, something that coincides with the data collected in the survey.

Undertaking activities is planned according to deadlines for delivery and the level of difficulty of the issues, giving priority to subjects of greater complexity. After receiving feedback from the teacher, the respondents said that they did not always explore the topic further unless, that is, the feedback was not clear or sufficiently detailed.

Finally, the respondents said that the role of the teacher was very important in terms of facilitating their education process.

This study identified the learning strategies and styles of students using the e-learning mode at Unipanamericana, which showed that the active, visual and global styles predominant.

One thing to consider when learning environments and educational resources involved in PLEs are provided – which is significant in the sample – is that students prefer an environment isolated from noise and distraction factors, so as to enable better concentration and enhanced learning. For this reason, it is important to consider these conditions at the time of designing and publishing educational resources on virtual platforms, seeking balance between the different resources and ensuring that they are not distracting from the true purpose of learning that the students hope to achieve.

As for learning strategies, the trend among students is to make enquiries and address their concerns through various online resources. Faced with this situation, they have various options: to improve the quality and ultimately the accuracy of the information published on the network, though this does not depend solely on the teachers and students at Unipanamericana: while it is a viable alternative, it is insufficient. In short, we still need to generate the culture for students to seek out and identify reliable sources like books, specialist databases, scientific articles published in indexed journals, both nationally and internationally, and, finally to promote respect for copyright and the use of standards such as those of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Among the learning strategies, worthy of note is the fact that the students have a structure and are organized to carry out their learning process, plan their activities and to devote extra time to study. As for self-regulation, when undertaking their activities, the students realize whether or not they have been done properly, that is, they independently reflect on their own learning. However, it is necessary to continue strengthening the self-assessment strategies currently implemented at the university.

This indicates that is necessary to recognize that every individual learns and constructs knowledge differently based on their cognitive abilities, interests and preconceptions. This implies that knowledge is unique to the individual and depends on the pace of learning and the meaning given to it. Hence the importance of shifting towards active, dynamic and collaborative learning, sharing experiences and generating new knowledge, supported by the use of ICTs. This is possible if educational institutions have techno-pedagogical resources and strategies that are tailored to the learning styles of each student, and identifying them will allow them to build more assertive learning environments that are better tailored to their needs and interests. It is also important to create action plans that allow educational resources, platforms and mentoring processes to be adapted to the learning strategies and styles of students using the e-learning mode. Of particular importance within these plans is the implementation of instruments at different stages of the students’ formative processes, report results available online to students and tutors, specialized study skills clubs from the predominant learning styles, time management resources and strategies, and the adaptation of resources to different formats for different devices, among others.

Finally, this study allowed a literature review to be conducted, which helped to determine the current status of the issue within the national and international context, and instruments to be made available to students using the e-learning mode at Unipanamericana to identify their learning styles and strategies, which are the cornerstones for building their PLEs.

Study limitations and prospects

During the course of the study, the greatest difficulty was encountered in the questionnaire implementation stage due to the timing of the academic recess for students in Colombia, which coincided with the data collection date. In the questionnaire implementation stage of future projects, it will be important to contact participants via email, social networks and institutional platforms to provide them with a preliminary summary of the study in order to encourage them to become part of the sample.

Based on the results of this study, a new project has been started. The new project seeks to design software to allow students to undertake activities, each designed according to the questions of the instruments used during the study. By using the software, the students will be able to undertake these activities and, on completion, the software will tell each student what his/her dominant learning style is and suggest a series of learning strategies.

Likewise, the need arises to perform new studies to delve into the role of the tutor in the students’ PLEs and learning styles, and into how the tutor will be able to guide the students to ensure that they are better used.

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Director, Research Group in Engineering GIIS, Panamerican University Foundation

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ORCID ID: 0000-0001-8481-0382

Master’s degree in Education and ICT (e-learning). Communication systems specialist and systems engineer. Teaching researcher with experience in e-learning project management, software design and development, web applications, virtual platforms, virtual learning objects, content design, e-learning design, database administration and migration processes, and Blackboard and Moodle LMS platform management. Experience in university teaching, virtual mentoring and curriculum design.

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