Title: the Development of an Inventory to Assess the Learning Styles of Adults with Learning

Title: the Development of an Inventory to Assess the Learning Styles of Adults with Learning

©Angela Lisle 2005

Title: The Development of an Inventory to Assess the Learning Styles of Adults with Learning Difficulties


Angela Mary Lisle

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005


Learners who currently attend Padley Development Centre can participate in therapeutic activities such as pottery, arts and crafts and expressive arts. Other courses include National Vocational Qualifications in woodwork, catering and basic skills. Life-skills have been introduced as part of government initiatives of community development, participation and achievement and inclusive education. The develop of an electronic inventory to assess the learning styles of adults with learning difficulties was seen as one way of achieving inclusion. It was also imperative that what was developed was suitable for all manner of learning task and not just basic skills. What use would a basic skills assessment be in a pottery environment for example? From an inclusivity point of view, every learner that attended the centre must benefit from what was to be created. Learning styles analysis material available was huge but there was actually very little that was appropriate for adults with Learning Difficulties. One area within learning styles: the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) representational system, seem the most enabling. The research aims thus became: to develop an electronic inventory to assess the learning styles of adults with learning difficulties, that is user friendly, reliable and valid. During the course of its development, it was discovered that the DfES (2004) were to endorse a learning style inventory based on the work of Smith (1996) for use in secondary education. Smith’s system a long with other VAK systems was the guiding inspiration in the development of the Padley Inventory. The use of VAKs has been derogated as leading to theory-practice pedagogy in education that is mis-interpreted and ill-informed (Geake, 2003, 2005). The focus of this paper therefore is dual in that the ‘user friendliness’ of the tool developed will include a critical appraisal of its use in light of Geake’s (2003, 2005) critique. Assessments have shown that 34% of the participants have visual preferences, 34% have auditory, 23% have kinaesthetic, and 9% have multi-modal learning preferences. Interviews reveal the tool to be user-friendly. It is suggested the project be on going monitoring for fine-tuning of questions.

Key Words:

Learning Style Inventory; Adult Learners, Learning Difficulties;

Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic Modalities,

Neuropsychogical-educational Pedagogy

Background and Context

It has been well research that each individual has a preferred style of learning, and understanding of it can influence students’ learning in a positive way (Hartman, 1995). A whole array of theories developed throughout the 19 hundreds and beyond explain or classify different learning styles in order to firstly understand the process of learning and secondly to manipulate it, i.e. to improve it. Knowledge of one’s learning style can lead to enhanced learning and helps the learner focus on the improvement of weaker points. Honey and Mumford (1986) for example, suggested that learning styles are a method for the organisation of learning and thus aid the completion of the learning process. Kolb (1984) suggested that we learn experientially, and his cycle of learning: experience, reflection, conceptualisation and action indeed describes the process of learning analogous to the way information is processed in the brain (Lisle, 2000, 2005). Learning styles analysis is useful for informing the teaching and learning process if used as a tool to enhance achievement and inclusion in line with government guidelines (DfES, 2004) and Accelerated Learning Packages produced by theorists such as Bandler and Grinder (1990) Smith (1996) and Rose (1997). But, is it not enough that teachers’ knowledge of leaning styles be used to develop and plan teaching strategies without doing the modality assessments for individual learners? Much of educational pedagogy is exactly that: Teachers learning the theory and practice of education but without assessing learning styles.

This paper starts out as an assessment of a learning style inventory for validity of purpose. Staff and clients at the Padley Development Centre developed the inventory itself. It was thought that such an inventory would enhance achievement and inclusion, and the Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles inventory (Bandler and Grinder, 1990: Smith, 1996: Rose, 1997) was chosen because it was seen as fit for purpose. Such VAK systems are partly supported by experimental work of Riding and Rayner (1993), cognitive psychologists who discovered relationships between the presentation of information and recall in that those with ‘Verbal-Imagery’ cognitive style preferences respond better if information is presented ‘text-plus-picture’ rather than ‘text-plus-text’. In addition, theorists such as Bandler and Grinder (1990) use a system called Neuro-Lingusitic Programming to enhance teaching through the knowledge of learning style preferences. Neuro-Linguistics is about the way the nervous system (the central nervous system being equated with cognition) receives information through the senses; including language and nonverbal communication and the mapping of this information reception to neural matter in the brain. The programming of neuro-linguistics can be essentially that, enhancing learners’ ability to organise the nervous and linguistic system for learning and achievement. Yet advances in the field of neuropsychology have had a counter productive effect manifest as they have become: theory-practice educational pedagogy based on over fervent conclusions of behavioural representation in specific brain areas. Geake (2003, 2005) for example, recoils (in the Hegelian sense: ‘The phenomenology of Spirit’) at the way neuropsychology has impacted on teaching practice:

‘…reports estimate a 1000 UK schools are using brain gym exercises. Unfortunately much of this well-intentioned interest is predicated on an over-simplification of brain research e.g. lateralisation biases mis-interpreted as left- and right-brain thinking…from results of experiments that have been mis-interpreted and not environmentally validated outside the experimental lab’ (Geake, in ‘researchintelligence: BERA’, 2005, p11-12).

Geake therefore warns of the use of VAK learning styles inventories including that endorsed by the DfES (2004) and particularly the brain gym work of theorists such as Dennison (1999). This left the project in somewhat of a quandary. Was the VAK modality assessment valid given Geake’s comments? It was felt that not only should the inventory be analysed and evaluated for validity of purpose but through taking on board what Geake (2003, 2005) had said, further analysis of the VAK system was essential in light of his critique and developments in neuropsychology that have mis-led teaching practice. Therefore a sister paper dealing with Geake’s critique was also written because in the confines of the word limit here, both topics could not be dealt with satisfactorily. Insights drawn from the sister paper have inform this one.

The rationale for conducting this study therefore, is to understand the teaching and learning process fully, particularly the modalities of the cognate process. This will involve assessing the learning styles of participants with learning difficulties so that as practitioners we can plan for a diversity of individual differences. As learners, individuals can in turn influence their learning by firstly understanding it, secondly taking control of it and thirdly improving their difficulties once their understanding of learning preferences is completed using the modality inventory and instruction materials that will be developed to accompany it. In this way, participants will be empowered. Although auditory learners prefer listen to instruction, visual learners prefer to use diagrams and pictorial information, and kinaesthetic learners like to do practical tasks (Barbe, 1985: Gardner, 1993: Smith, 1996: Rose, 1997), they use elements of all three learning styles whilst learning but will operate in one modality more than the others. Learners may use different modalities for different information learning tasks. But through assessment and instruction can be shown how to lead with their preferred primary modality to begin with whilst developing their lesser-used secondary modality/modalities. The primary modality being the main learning style of a particular learner and the secondary modality being the lesser used learning styles Bouldin and Myers (2002).

Using learning style assessments to empower learners is extensive amongst all manner of learner from pharmacy and biology students to primary school children (Bouldin and Myers, 2002: Sprenger, 2003: Perry and Ball, 2004). Perry and Ball (2004) for example, examined various learning style programmes such as the Myers-Briggs’ Type Indicator and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory as well as Gardner’s Intelligences and concluded how useful learning style assessments were for course development and teaching practice generally. Therefore, students with learning difficulties can benefit from modality learning materials equally as well. One last point to consider though is the suggestion that the kinaesthetic learning style is unfounded. Coffield (2005) suggests that the kinaesthetic learning style does not exist and he regards it as ‘kinaesthetic nonsense’. Coffield appears to be concerned about what happens once labelled kinaesthetic i.e. the self-fulfilling prophecy in which one becomes what one is labelled, thereby neglecting to enhance the other learning styles. Most practitioners therefore who use this method of identifying learning modality should operate a programme of teaching and learning based around expanding the teaching and learning process through a variety of instructional strategies that can be adapted to different learning situations (DfES, 2004). For example, the teacher’s learning modality and the student’s learning modality should be assessed and integrated into an overall compendium of teaching and learning situational contexts.

Practitioners such as Lacey (2000) think that ‘learning disability is a multiprofessional, multidisciplinary topic and therefore educationalists should get involved with the care of adults with learning difficulties because their care is dominated by the medical profession and therefore this group of people do not get the access to education they deserve’ (2000, p100-2). Lacey suggests that ‘people with learning difficulties find learning difficult by definition’ (2000, p100) so their need for help is greater. Perhaps this inventory will help.

Disabled individuals at Padley Development Centre are mainly mature and have a variety of learning difficulties. They also mainly fall within the pre-entry level of skills development, and only sometimes are they at a stage of development up to level 2. Some learning style inventories are too complex for use. Honey and Munford’s (1986) model for example had little meaning to this student group, and although the Myers-Briggs’ Type Indicator and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory has proved useful with some groups of people it did not with this group of individuals. The Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic (VAK) modality type indicator was pitched at the correct level, but the VAK tests that were available were either aimed at children or they did not appeal to this particular adult learning group. Tests such as those used by Riding and Raynor (1999) and Briggs (2000) in Further Education (FE) whilst useful in FE, were not suitable to individuals in this specialist group. The three learning styles of VAK: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic made it one of the most enabling but the paper assessments left out several learners who found the paper format ‘flat and boring’. Some learners who could not read or write could not do the test without assistance so a VAK paper test seemed limiting and because some of the students were non-readers (pre-entry level) then VARK: Visual, Aural/Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinaesthetic (Fleming and Mills, 1992) could not be used either.

It was decided that an electronic VAK inventory would be beneficial in this context as it would allow the use of pictures and sounds which this specialist group would find more enabling. The use of information technology as a form of scaffolding to enhance learning has been greatly documented and acknowledge because of its interactive quality (Ager, 2000). It was thought that because Padley Development Centre individuals had been collaborative agents in the development of the inventory; some of them appear in the photographs for example, or have done a similar test, that the inventory should be tested on a separate group who were ‘naïve’ having no prior knowledge of the test to prevent the results being confounded. It addition, for ethical reason it was agreed that the participants remain anonymous; therefore using a second group in the testing of the tool allowed greater anonymity. The questionnaire for the test was modelled on several Accelerated Learning varieties of VAK, such as Barbe (1985) Rose (1997) and that of Smith (1996) endorsed by the DfES for use in secondary education (2004). A copy of the inventory questionnaire is Appendix One.

Literature Review

Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligence (1993) was one of the first to focus in on the learning process to discover peoples’ learning styles rather than the measurement of intelligence such as in Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Gardner suggested that intelligence was not a single unitary entity but made up of several systems of ability that are independent yet interrelated. He for example, suggested that we each have multiple intelligences and in ‘Frames of Mind’, Gardner outlined several different intelligences: Logical/Mathematical, Visual and Spatial, Musical, Bodily and Kinaesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic and Experiential. This system of abilities allows the individual to solve problems. Three of these intelligences form the modalities of VAK: visual, linguistic/auditory and kinaesthetic. His theory is widely used in schools today to enhance the teaching and learning process, and is often synthesised with Bloom’s taxonomy (Child Education, 2003).The use of Bloom’s taxonomy outlines the cognitive-behavioural skills to be developed (result) and Gardner’s multiple intelligence modalities describe the cognitive-behavioural modalities used (tool).

Gardner’s multiple intelligences is not meant to be a way of compartmentalising individuals in terms of one or another of the intelligences indeed Gardner warns of ‘Repeating the sins of intelligence Testing’ (1993, p xxvi). He emphasises how intelligences brings attention to the fact that different cultures have different ideas about what intelligence is and the intelligences are also diverse within a particular cultural group too.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people such as Bandler and Grinder (1990) began to develop further knowledge in the area of learning styles. Theories that aim to support and scaffold learning in this way have in fact become know as accelerated learning theories. The aim as the name suggests is to spur on learning and development through the understanding of the learners’ learning style or information processing modality within a given social context. The Neuro Linguistic Programming Approach was formed, an approach that used the VAK inventory to assess learning styles. Smee and Smee, (2004, p18) advocates of the Neuro Linguistics Programme, state ‘Bandler used the VAK model to enable the calibration of individual students’ use of different forms of mental representation, which has enable experts to re-conceptualise and begin to make progress in assisting those with “learning difficulties” such as Attention Deficit Disorder and Dyslexia. . In addition, Fleming and Mills state:

‘We have come to the conclusion that the most realistic approach to the accommodation of learning styles in teaching programs should involve empowering students through knowledge of their own learning styles to adjust their learning behaviour to the learning program they encounter…(w)e believe in assisting students to know themselves and to operate in a meta-cognitive fashion to make adjustments in their learning behaviours’ (Fleming and Mills, 1992, p138).

It is in this context that learning styles/modalities are conducive to learning. Teachers’ knowledge of learning styles and use should be complemented by the individuals’ understanding of learning styles to acquire the full benefit of their use.

The Model Used

As the literature review illustrates this project is based on several others that come under the general rubric of the accelerated learning and neuro-linguistic programming theorists that use the VAK modalities as indicators of learning styles (Bandler and Grinder, 1990: Barbe, 1985:Smith, 1996: Rose, 1997: Riding and Raynor, 1999: Briggs, 2000). It is suggested that the usual outcome from the VAK modality indicator is 25-30% visual, 25-30% auditory, 15% tactile/kinaesthetic and 25-30% mixed modalities (Rose, 1997). Briggs (2000) found from research in FE, an even distribution across the modalities, but in terms of gender, females showed stronger visual preferences and weaker kinaesthetic. Groups of students on paper based courses tending to favour visual learning styles, but results were distributed across the three modalities. Bouldin and Myers (2002) from research using pharmacy students (176 in total) and the VARK inventory, 79% of participants were multi-modal; and of the 21% who were uni-modal, the majority were primary kinaesthetic. It appears that pharmacy students like to do experiments as well as learning theoretical based knowledge: the synthesis of abstract and concrete thinking during the process of concept formation (Lisle, 2005).