What are Learning Styles and what are their Implications for Coaching/Teaching?4 Opinions
So what learning style are you? It should be very easy to find out. You can simply take a number of written or online tests to tell you whether you are:
- Visual, Auditory, Reader, Kinaesthetic (Fleming, 2001)
- Concrete, Sequential, Abstract, Random (Gregorc, 1981)
- Visual, Aural, Verbal, Physical, Logical, Social, Solitary (Whiteley, 2003)
- Activist, Reflector, Theorist, Pragmatist (Honey and Mumford, 1992)
- Holistic, Analytic, Verbaliser, Imager (Riding and Cheema, 1991)
…to mention but a few. Grant (2002) tells us that:
“as individuals we each have different rules for learning… Driven by our own interpretation of new experiences and knowledge from an early age. How much any individual learns is very much related to whether educational experience is geared towards their particular learning style rather than how intelligent they are or from what social background they may come from. In essence the question to be asked is not ‘how bright is the individual’ but ‘how is the individual bright?’”
In other words different individuals have different talents (abilities), interests, work styles and lifestyles. Everyone perceives and processes information differently thus viewing the world in different ways. Attempting to explain these differences may help to infer why we learn at different rates and to varying skill levels. It also implies that if we have the potential to excel at something, but are not provided with information in our preferred format that we are doomed to not succeed in that domain. This may then be due to circumstances beyond our control e.g. the person teaching/coaching us may have their own distinctive teaching/coaching style that may not be to our liking (more about this later). Williams (1996):
“learning is more effective if the teaching style used is consistent with the preferred learning style… A mismatch will have an adverse effect on learning”
There are however, a number of issues with learning styles and the way in which they are supposedly measured. They are generally measured by questionnaires which create their own issues. They are inadequate to understand some forms of information i.e. changes of emotions, behaviour, feelings etc. which may then mean that they have little validity or reliability. A responder may respond in a certain way on one day if they are in a good mood and in a different way on another day if they are sad or angry. Quantitative (numbers/statistics) research is an artificial creation by researchers, as it is asking only a limited amount of information without explanation i.e. the researcher has decided what to ask and how to ask it, which may exclude a raft of other salient information. There is also no way to tell how truthful a respondent is being/how much thought went into their answer. It could be that they simply could not be bothered in completing the questionnaire fully and gave any old answer. It could also be a case of demand characteristics where the responder gives the answers that they think they should to please the researcher instead of an honest response. If there is limited guidance in completing the items then people may interpret questions differently. If they are given guidance there may be a risk of observer bias, whereby the person giving that assistance may unconsciously point responders towards certain answers or the responder may perceive this to happen.
Issues with learning styles include pigeonholing learners to one style, which is problematic as they are then only targeted with one source of information. This does not account for our brains being ‘plastic’ meaning they can change and be moulded over the course of our lives. If there are supposedly so many different styles of learning, which is the best theory? What then would be the best method of teaching/coaching? What are the implications for coaching styles? Is random/varied practice better than fixed/blocked practice, for example? This may depend on the complexity of the skill being learned; the stage of learning (cognitive; associative; autonomous); individual needs/preferences; intellectual capacity, etc. The human brain is so complex that it is surely not as simple as placing our learners into one convenient compartment for receiving information.
In his book, ‘What’s the point of School?’, Guy Claxton (2008) points out:
“the apparent science behind them [learning styles] turned out to be flawed. Many so-called ‘learning styles’ are far less permanent, pervasive or clear-cut than claimed… people change the way they approach things depending on what they are learning. I am a much more ‘visual’ learner when watching TV, more ‘auditory’ when listening to a teacher and more ‘kinaesthetic’ when playing football – aren’t you? Also, learning styles change and develop considerably over time… they are better thought of as temporary snap-shots of evolving habits and preferences than as life sentences”
I also like the messages in this video:
Is it wrong to dismiss learning styles altogether though? Sharp (2004) claims that “learning styles help sensitise teachers and coaches to individual differences and the importance of TRYING to maximise the potential of all learners”. So according to Cassidy (2004) they may be useful, but:
“There needs to be a deliberate and documented choice of model which reflects the broad awareness of the field and which will allow results and outcomes to be dealt with in a clear conceptual framework. Following such guidance should contribute to the development of a unifying and empirical framework of learning style”
You could therefore conclude that learning styles are a great idea in theory, as they identify that differentiation is required between learners to fully develop each and every one. However, the usual ‘social science caveat’ exists that (much) more research is required.
Where does that leave us in the here and now? Claxton describes some of the ways that we may learn in real life (which do actually reflect some of the ideas of learning styles, but not in such an insular way):
- “Watching and imitating others [role models i.e. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory]
- Trying it ourselves
- Asking questions, when and if we need to
- Making notes/diagrams that may make sense only to us
- Trying different scenarios, trial and error (repetition)
- Visualising how things might work and how we can rehearse various outcomes”
As implied above, the simplicity of learning styles is convenient for teachers/coaches, but surely there are other psychological factors involved in the process. It seems impossible to band the entire human population into just a handful of possible categories. Wurst and Lombardo (1994) identified the following factors as being important in the learning process:
- The Student e.g. Skill level, physical maturity, motivation, learning ‘style’; more mature/advanced learners may require more guided discovery
- The Teacher e.g. Ability to manage group, confidence, personality (enthusiasm/passion?)
- The Subject e.g. Degree of risk involved, complexity, class of skill (e.g. Open/closed), team or individual
- The Environment e.g. Resources, time, group size
The Student: The more skilled the student, the less input that should be required by the teacher. Once they have ‘learned to learn’, they now have the tools to solve problems and find information for themselves rather than be spoon fed. The implication for beginners (cognitive/associative stages) would be a more autocratic approach to help them build up a mental encyclopaedia of data (schema theory – Schmidt, 1975). For ‘elite learners’ (autonomous stage) a more democratic or laissez-faire approach may work better for the reasons mentioned above. Motivation is a massive factor in learning that none of the styles I am aware of mention. If you are motivated to achieve something you are far more likely to be successful at it than if you are forced to do it. From a personal point of view this would be anything related to maths! Enjoyment must also be linked to motivation to an extent. If you find an experience inherently enjoyable you are more likely to want to repeat (practice) it i.e. positive reinforcement. This could be one of the most important and overlooked factors. The implication for coaches/teachers would be to make your lessons/sessions enjoyable (but again this may not be to everyone’s taste – some learners may want to be in a more serious environment – there may be links here to different personality types/disorders e.g. perfectionism, OCD, Asperger’s). I would like to point out a distinction between enjoyment and fun here. Fun has implications of running around a playground aimlessly, whereas enjoyment can be serious but still pleasurable – getting the balance right is the tricky part!
The Teacher: group management is undoubtedly a factor. A teacher’s personality may lend itself to them being more authoritarian or more laid-back and charismatic. They may have their own particular style of delivery that rarely or never changes. According to Chelladurai’s (1984, 1990) Multi-Dimensional Theory of Leadership, adaptability is key. The closer that required, preferred and actual leader behaviour is to the group’s preference, then the more likely that successful outcomes and group satisfaction will be achieved. The obvious implication here is that the best coaches/teachers can change their style of delivery and effectively manage each individual in the group rather than being a ‘one trick pony’. A good example of this would be Sir Alex Ferguson. Although he was notorious for giving players the ‘hairdryer’ treatment in the dressing room where he got right into their faces to deliver what could politely be called a ‘firm rebuke’, he generally knew which players needed this and which were more in need of a quiet word and an ‘arm round the shoulder’. However, even the most experienced can get it wrong sometimes as this may have backfired during the incident with David Beckham depending on which version of the story you believe, but it goes to show that nobody is too old to learn a new lesson!
Passion and enthusiasm for the subject are also a must for successful coaches/teachers. There is nothing more uninspiring than someone who looks jaded or uninterested in what they are delivering. On the other hand, a coach/teacher with real passion can act as a real spur to learners. I am sure we can think of coaches/teachers that fall into both categories.
The Subject: this may again link to motivation and enjoyment. The best motivator is success and if you are successful at something you are more likely to enjoy it and repeat that actions. If this continues to be an achievable challenge then it seems likely that you would adhere to this activity. If it became too easy then motivation may decrease due to boredom. If it became persistently too hard (increasing complexity of the skills involved with little mastery), then success (performance curve) would become too infrequent meaning that the learner may drop out. Good goal-setting skills may be vital here for teacher/coach and learner.
The Environment: Resources or lack of may be a factor depending on the activity taking place. Finances may come into this equation. Academies in sport in this country are now populated by middle class children whose parents have the money and resources to buy expensive equipment and ferry their offspring around the country to fulfil fixtures and attend training several ties a week. Time may be another factor. An obvious example of this may be linked to another aspect of the environment – the weather. Footballers in Spain have on average accumulated thousands more hours of practiced by the time they get to 16 than their British counterparts, partly due to lack of facilities and inclement weather in the UK, which may be reflected in their technical/tactical superiority. Group size may be a factor. Type of sport would be an indicator of this. Someone involved in an individual sport (e.g. combat sports, golf, tennis) would by the very nature of the sport, have more time with their coaches/instructors than someone in a team sport (e.g. football, rugby, hockey). This would give them enhanced access to information that may improve their performance, whereas individual support in team sports may be less likely (may be linked to resources as elite sporting organisations would have better access to specialised coaching staff and sport scientists).
In conclusion, learning styles are a great idea in theory. However, that theory needs to be tightened up considerably for them to be fully effective as teaching/coaching tools. There are so many factors that affect a learner whether they be biological, socio-economic or psychological (see Bailey et al, 2010 Biopsychosocial model for a very thorough insight). The implication though maybe to repeatedly present information to learners in as many different ways as possible as long as it is not boring and remains to be a challenge to them. Using models to demonstrate information is a great tool especially with the advent of YouTube and other social media channels. Encouraging learner to ask questions when they do not understand is also important and talking of modelling, it is also important to model yourself as a learner even when you are the teacher: do not make out that you know everything; be stumped by questions/ideas from time to time (but not so often as to appear incompetent), but demonstrate how you intend to discover the answer for yourself. Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ tells us not to praise ability, but instead praise effort so as to foster a growth rather than a fixed mindset to learning. Guy Claxton talks about the dangers of ‘overpraise’ which fits in well with my own ideas on the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to self-esteem and giving praise for every small achievement, instead of giving it only when deserved (not necessarily for success, but for working hard to overcome barriers). Encourage learners to make notes and diagrams in their own unique form of shorthand. Visualisation is another good way to create better and faster neural pathways in the brain (e.g. Holmes and Collins PETTLEP Model, 2001). If a task is too easy make it harder, if too hard make it easier and break it down into manageable chunks. In her book entitled ‘Choke’ (2010), Sian Beilock cites an experiment by Hinds (1999) that advocates the value of peer learning i.e. teaching each other and also a current fad in teaching ‘flip learning’ where learners deliver the entire lesson to the teacher/coach and not the other way round. I was told when studying to become a teacher that you do not truly know your subject until you have to teach it. I agree and having coached football for a number of years, it has also made me a significantly better player in terms of game understanding, although unfortunately I am too old now to be able to put this into effect too often! Overall the aim is simple – as a coach/teacher you should be wanting to make yourself redundant by giving your learners the tools that they require to be independent thinkers i.e. learning to learn.
Bailey, R et al (2010) Biopsychsocial Model: A New Model for Development https://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/Participant-Development-Lit-Review.pdf
Beilock, S (2010) Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to, Atria Paperback
Cassidy S (2004) Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, measures; Educational Psychology, Vol 24, No 4, August http://www.acdowd-designs.com/sfsu_860_11/LS_OverView.pdf (date accessed 21/2/15)
Claxton G (2008) What’s the Point of School? One World Publications
Dweck, C (2011) Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential, Robinson
Sharp, B (2004) Acquiring Skill in Sport, Sports Dynamics
Schmidt, R.A & Lee, T.D (1999) Motor Control & Learning, Human Kinetics
Whiteley S (2003), Memletics Accelerated Learning Manual, p55-56
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About James Barraclough
I currently work as a lecturer in sport at the Manchester College. I am also under 14s coach at a Championship football club's academy. My third role is as a sport performance (psychology) consultant specialising in football and mixed martial arts.