Learning styles

Research into higher education has focused on learning styles as one means of exploring how students learn differently. The research generally follows a cognitive approach to learning. Students do not follow one learning style, and many factors influence the approach to learning that they adopt - assessment methods, the academic environment, and peer pressure all have an impact on how students study. These issues should be borne in mind when selecting electronic resources for teaching.

What are learning styles?

Learning styles are a way of describing how students approach learning. Over the years a lot of terminology has been created to describe very similar theories, though for higher education Noel Entwistle's work has had most influence. He uses the terms 'deep', 'surface' and 'strategic' to describe students' orientations to learning. The characteristics of each style are summarised in the table below:

Learning style



Intends to understand learning material. Is actively interested in the course. Looks for patterns and underlying principles within learning material and relates ideas to previous knowledge. Examines argument and logic critically, and checks for evidence.


Intends to fulfil the immediate task. Worries about work. Studies with no clear strategy or purpose. Attempts to memorise facts within the learning material. Finds it difficult to make sense of new ideas. Does not search for patterns or connections across different parts of a course.


Intends to do well in assessments. Worries about finding the right study material. Focuses on assessment criteria, and shapes work to meet the lecturers' perceived needs. Studies consistently to maximise grades.

Taken from Table 1: Defining features of approaches to learning, Entwistle 1995, 48.

Initially it was thought that students tended towards a single learning style, though research has shown that they switch between learning styles, and that this is influenced by their motivation to study, assessment methods, curriculum design, and the academic culture of the departments in which they are based. For example, a curriculum which requires students to study a lot of data tends to push them towards a surface approach. An environment where there is extreme pressure amongst students to excel would push them to adopt strategic approaches to learning. Enabling student input into course design and assignments is thought to motivate students, to lead to more active engagement with the course, and a deep approach to learning (Richardson and King 1991).

There is a suggestion in the literature that the 'deep' approach is the ideal one to promote, though in practice students would benefit from following all three approaches, depending on the task in hand. It therefore follows that students should be supported in becoming aware of their learning styles, so as to be able to identify the most effective learning style for individual tasks.

Learning and teaching strategies

Learning strategies are the actions students take in studying, such as selecting reading, preparing essay plans, and discussing these with peers. Tutors have many opportunities to support students in developing effective learning strategies, not only for independent study but also within class time. Training in study skills should benefit students, though this is most effective when delivered by individual departments, enabling students to apply their study skills within their normal learning environment (Entwistle 1992).

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Last updated: Wed Aug 21 2002

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