There are two broad accounts of differences in styles of learning. One account, which may be appropriately termed ‘conceptions of learning’, comes from the work of phenomenographers such as Marton et al. (1984), Entwistle (1981) and Ramsden (1996). A second account of differences in learning focuses on learners’ ‘processing skills’ and routines. Typically, this account assumes that individuals have a preference for one learning style and that most teaching activities are also geared towards one style of learning. It is argued that effective learning is more likely to take place where individual preferences match the learning style of the activity. Thus, while it is impossible to cater consistently for all learning styles in every activity used, it is useful to provide a variety of teaching methods within a programme in order that all students have the opportunity to participate in a learning activity that is specific to their learning style. One school of thought in this tradition derives from the work of Gardner (1993), who identifies different types of intelligence (such as spatial, kinaesthetic and linguistic) in which students are more or less skilled. A second school of thought derives from the ‘experiential learning tradition’ and the work of Kolb (1999).

Theorists in the experiential learning tradition identify four types of learning style: the activist learner, the reflective learner, the theorist learner and the pragmatic learner. Table 1 outlines those activities that will be most or least appropriate for each type of learner.

Table 1 Seminar activities appropriate to each type of learner (according to ‘experiential learning’)

Activist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • there are new experiences/problems, etc.;
  • they can become engrossed in short tasks, games, competitive teamwork tasks, etc.;
  • there is excitement/drama/crisis and things chop and change with a range of diverse activities to tackle;
  • there is chance of limelight, e.g. leading discussions, giving presentations;
  • they are involved with other people, e.g. bouncing ideas off them, solving problems as part of a team.
Learns least from activities where:
  • learning involves a passive role, e.g. listening to lectures, reading, explanations;
  • they are not directly involved;
  • they are required to assimilate, analyse and interpret lots of data;
  • they are required to engage in solitary work, i.e. reading, writing, thinking on their own;
  • they are asked to repeat the same activity over and over again.
Reflector style
Learns best from activities where:
  • they are encouraged to watch/think/chew over activities;
  • they are able to listen/observe a group;
  • they can reach a decision in their own time without pressure and tight deadlines.
Learns least from activities where:
  • they are forced into the limelight;
  • they are worried by time pressures or rushed from one activity to another;
  • they are pitched into doing something without warning.
Theorist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • they are in structured situations with a clear purpose;
  • they are required to understand and participate in complex situations;
  • they have time to explore the associations and interrelationships between ideas, events and situations.
Learns least from activities where:
  • they have to participate in situations that are unstructured, where ambiguity and uncertainty are high, e.g. open-ended problems;
  • they are faced with a hotchpotch of alternative/contradictory techniques without exploring any in depth;
  • they find the subject matter platitudinous, shallow or gimmicky.
Pragmatist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • there is an obvious link between the subject matter and a problem set;
  • they are practising techniques with coaching/feedback;
  • they are given techniques that are applicable to the real world.
Learns least from activities where:
  • the learning is not related to an immediate need or relevance;
  • there is no practice or clear guidelines on how to do it;
  • they cannot see sufficient reward from the learning activity.

Source: Honey and Mumford (1995).

Top Tip: When selecting individuals for group work, mix the learning style in each group – don’t have all the activists in one group and all the theorists in another. As no activity is best suited to all learning styles, a mixture of learning styles in each group will mean that the students who are able to relate to the activity can encourage those who are having more difficulty engaging in the process.

The ‘phenomenographic’ tradition (Entwistle, 1981; Marton et al., 1984) suggests that students may have more or less effective conceptions of learning and that it might be possible for university teachers to improve students’ approach to learning by altering the teaching methods used. The evidence provided by this research tradition suggests that students who adopt a ‘deep’ approach to learning achieve better outcomes in higher education than students who adopt a ‘surface approach’ to learning (Gibbs, 1992; Biggs, 1999; Fry et al., 1999). A deep approach to learning ‘is typified as an intention to understand and seek meaning, leading students to attempt to relate concepts to existing experience, distinguishing between new ideas and existing knowledge, and critically evaluating and determining key themes and concepts’ (Fry et al., 1999, p. 30). A surface approach to learning ‘is typified as an intention to complete the task, memorize information, make no distinction between new ideas and existing knowledge; and to treat the task as externally imposed (as extrinsic). Rote learning is the typical surface approach’ (Fry et al., 1999, p. 30). Finally, some students adopt a strategic approach that involves students structuring their learning in order to obtain high grades in the programme of study.

Biggs (1999) discusses characteristics of students (e.g. misunderstanding requirements, anxiety) and teaching (e.g. providing insufficient time for activities, emphasising coverage at the expense of depth) that may result in students adopting a surface approach to learning. Biggs also reviews the characteristics of students and the teaching and learning experience that encourage students to adopt a deep approach to learning. The signals provided to students by the way in which their learning is assessed give rise to the idea of ‘constructive alignment’. That is, there is little point in striving to encourage students to adopt a deep approach to their learning if students perceive the style of the assessment as rewarding rote learning more strongly than deep understanding. In the words of Biggs, ‘A good teaching system aligns teaching method and assessment to the learning activities stated in the objectives, so that all aspects of this system are in accord in supporting appropriate student learning’ (1999, p. 11).

These views of learning styles and approaches to learning have different implications for seminar leaders. The experiential learning and multiple intelligences perspectives on learning styles suggest that seminar leaders should vary the type of task in seminars to accommodate the innate preferences of different learners. The phenomenographic distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning suggests that seminar leaders should encourage all students to adopt a deep approach. However, each of these perspectives on learning suggests that it is helpful to encourage students to develop greater self-awareness of their personal approach to learning.

Helping students to understand how they learn can increase their motivation and achievement in a whole range of activities. This can be accomplished through a separate study skills unit, typically through a learning style questionnaire (see, for example, Entwistle, 1981; Honey and Mumford, 1995). Students usually find these self-review activities informative and helpful, enabling them to engage more effectively in the seminars. However, there is a danger that ideas introduced in study skills modules can become detached from the core elements of an economics degree if they are not overtly reinforced by seminar leaders.