Learning styles and the Australian VET system

Learning style theories have been criticised by many academics, researchers, and educationalists. The manta from these people sounds like:

“Numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles.”

The TAEDEL401 Plan, organise and deliver group-based learning and TAEDEL402 Plan, organise and facilitate learning in the workplace units of competency specify that a competent trainer or TAFE teacher must have some knowledge about learning styles. Therefore, learning styles must be covered during the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification.

In this article, I want to explore:

  • Are learning styles a myth?
  • Should learners be treated as an individual?
  • Do people learn in different ways?

Are learning styles a myth?

Critics say there is no consistent evidence that identifying an individual student’s learning style and teaching for specific learning styles produces better student outcomes. [1] Most of this rhetoric refers to school systems. And most of the criticism seems to stem from an argument against ‘streaming school children’ based on their ‘learning style’. For example, offer ‘hands-on’ school subjects for ‘kinaesthetic learners’; compared with offering them ‘academic’ school subjects.

Learning styles may be a pseudoscience. Learning styles may be a myth. However, learning styles as a concept may be useful for trainers and TAFE teachers. I am not an academic. I am a person who likes good ideas that work, and I think the concept of learning styles can be useful. I shall explain myself soon.

Should learners be treated as an individual?

I believe that in the Australian VET sector there is a wide-spread agreement that learners should be treated as individuals. But it does not matter if people were to disagree with this because the Standards for RTOs demand that learners are to be treated as individuals.

Learners must be treated as individuals in the Australian VET system.

Do people learn in different ways?

Individuals are different. And individuals may prefer different approaches or methods to learning. Often the different preferred learning methods are referred to as learning styles.

Learning style models

There are many different learning styles models. I like to cover two models during the delivery of the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification:

  • VAK or VARK models
  • Honey and Mumford’s model

VAK or VARK models

The five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch collect information about our environment, and this information is interpreted by the brain. The VAK or VARK models is based on learning through our senses and the way that the brain processes information.

Walter Burke Barbe and colleagues proposed the VAK model:

  • Visual learning
  • Auditory learning
  • Kinaesthetic learning.

And Neil Fleming’s VARK model adds the possibility that some people may prefer to learn by reading/writing.

The VAK or VARK models promote the idea that people can have a preferred learning style and some people prefer to use a combination of learning styles. According to research conducted by Walter Burke Barbe and colleagues, the most common learning styles are visual or combination. [2]

It does not matter to me if the concept of learning styles have been debunked. I still believe that the following methods or learning styles are ways that people learn:

  • Learn by reading
  • Learn by writing
  • Learn by listening
  • Learn by watching
  • Learn by doing.

And I believe that trainers and TAFE teachers must address different learning styles by designing and implementing a range of strategies:

  • Reading textbooks and writing notes
  • Using visual aids, diagrams and charts
  • Explaining a topic aloud for auditory learners
  • Practical activities for the kinaesthetic learners.

The vocational education and training (VET) system is focused on helping people learn to perform work tasks and activities. All learners, regardless of their preferred learning styles, will need to perform tasks described by units of competency. They will need to learn by doing.

The following flow chart shows a typical VET training pathway and the corresponding learning style or method.

Note: In the above training pathway, I would suggest that using appropriate visual aids can greatly assist when we explain and clarify the task. For example, use task breakdowns, flow charts, cycle diagrams, photos, etc.

Honey and Mumford’s model

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford adapted David Kolb’s experiential learning model. Their model is based on a learning cycle: [3]

  • Doing something, having an experience
  • Reflecting on the experience
  • Concluding from the experience, developing a theory
  • Planning the next steps, to apply or test the theory.

Honey and Mumford gave names (also called learning styles) to the people who prefer to enter the cycle at different stages: [4]

  • Activist – prefers doing something
  • Reflector – prefers reflecting on the experience
  • Theorist – prefers developing a theory
  • Pragmatist – prefers planning to test the theory.

During my delivery of the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification, I use the Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire as a ‘learn by doing’ activity. My TAE Students learn that not everyone likes to learn the same way, and a group will consist of people with different preferred learning styles. At the end of this activity, I provide the following information about various training methods that may be liked or disliked by people with different learning styles.

As previously stated, I believe that trainers and TAFE teachers must cater for different learning styles by designing and implementing a range of strategies. I encourage my TAE Students to incorporate the above eight training methods when they deliver their training sessions.

Also, knowing that some people do not like to learn certain ways helps us to respond to situations when learners complain about having to do something during training. For example, most VET practitioners are likely to think that reflection is an important part of the learning process. But an ‘activist’ may not want to spend their time reviewing and reflecting.

All training methods will have some advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, another activity I facilitate during the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification is based on the following table.

In conclusion

Trainers and TAFE teachers must expect to encounter a diversity of learners with different characteristics and needs. Different training methods will be needed to cater for a range of preferred learning styles or methods.

I believe that preferred learning styles can change over time. An individual’s may favour a learning method at the start of a training program that is different to what they would prefer at the end of a training program. And from my own experience, preferred learning styles or methods can change with age.

My most important insight is:

“Not every learner will like to learn the way we do.”

We need to design and implement a range of training methods to address different learning styles; not just use the training methods that we prefer.

Wikipedia’s Learning styles has been used as a reference for some content in this article marked as [1], [2], [3], and [4].

I hope you have liked this article. And I hope you will ‘like‘ it.

It does not matter to me if learning styles are based on science, pseudoscience, or folklore. I do find the concept of learning styles useful to introduce the need for VET practitioners to use a variety of training methods. However, I welcome your feedback and comments.

  • Do you like the concept of learning styles? Can you explain why?
  • Do you dislike the concept of learning styles? Can you explain why?
  • Do you have any experience with learners who have exhibited particular learning styles?

Australia’s VET system

Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system is complex and forever changing. People studying for their TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification may find useful information on this website. Tap or click on the following ABC logo to find out more.

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This article supplements the TAE resources that have been developed by On Target Work Skills.

Are you an RTO, and do you want to purchase quality training and assessment resources for delivering the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification?

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Training trainers since 1986

Author: Alan Maguire

35+ years experience as a trainer, instructional designer, quality manager, project manager, program manager, RTO auditor, RTO manager and VET adviser.

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