Should Teachers Adapt Instruction to Accommodate Multiple Learning Styles?
(See highlighted sections – pp. 3-6)
Shawn Tanner and Eryn Lessard
In partial completion of requirements
for Education 649:
Foundations of Educational Reform
Drs. Eugenie Potter & Patricia Kenney
Research indicates that learning improves when instructors adjust their teaching to match
the learning styles of their students (Matthews, 1991; Searson & Dunn, 2001). There are
criticisms of learning styles theory, research, and practice (Curry, 1990), however, and some
experts even argue that students develop more completely when they utilize their non-
preferred learning styles (Kolb, 1984). Should teachers adapt instruction to accommodate the
diverse learning styles of individual students?
During the past several decades, researchers and educators have increasingly asserted that
individual students may have different ways in which their minds work, and subsequently
different ways in which they prefer to learn. Framed as learning styles, cognitive styles, or
intelligences, theorists have proposed explanations for these differences in learning. Among the
more prominent explanations are Kenneth and Rita Dunn’s Learning Constructs, Howard
Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, David Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning, and
Anthony Gregoric’s Mind-Styles Theory.
Not surprisingly, a variety of instruments have been developed in order to assess the
characteristics of individual learners and to categorize them according to their learning or
thinking styles. Although instruments vary in terms of cost, complexity, validity, and the
psychological characteristics they are designed to assess, their application has gained
increasing currency within a wide range of educational contexts. Prominent instruments include
Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, Gregoric’s Styles Delineator, Myer’s Brigg’s Type Indicator,
Allinson and Hayes’ Cognitive Styles Index, Sternberg’s Thinking Styles Inventory, Jackson’s
Learning Styles Profiler, and Entwistle’s Approaches and Study Skills Inventory. Simpler
instruments range from questionnaires and self-reflective activities to web-based profiling tools.
Corresponding to these ideas about individual learning, research has also emerged
suggesting that students learn most effectively when teachers match their instructional styles to
the diverse learning styles of their students (Matthews, 1991; Searson & Dunn, 2001).
Consistent with such findings, Matthews argues that educational institutions should “recognize,
accept, and understand diversity in regard to learner typologies,” and utilize a variety of
instructional styles to match the styles of diverse learners (Matthews, 1991, p. 264). Similarly,
Gardner advocates changing the very nature of primary and secondary education in order to
accommodate individual needs of learners and nurture multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993).
Furthermore, educational institutions at all levels - but especially with a learner-centered
orientation - have either officially mandated or informally encouraged teachers to make
accommodations for diverse learning styles in planning and classroom instruction.
Despite the growing prominence of learning styles in research and practice, no consensus
has been reached among psychologists, educational experts, and teachers regarding the
validity or effectiveness of this perspective. Some researchers, such as Kolb (1984), have
suggested that students learn most effectively when there is a deliberate mismatch between the
instructional style of teachers and the learning styles of students. In the case of style-flexing
(e.g. students accommodating to instructional style by utilizing a non-preferred learning style),
some experts argue that students actually benefit in the long run by developing a broader
repertoire of learning skills.
Other educational experts argue that the inventories used to determine learning styles are
too simplistic or defective, and are not truly capable of effectively assessing and categorizing
the attributes of learners (Curry, 1990). Curry, for example, argues that the research which
forms the basis of learning styles theory is fundamentally flawed (Curry, 1990).
Finally, there is the issue of equity. Some educational experts point out that, from a
practical standpoint, it is simply impossible for an individual teacher to accommodate all learning
styles that may be present in a single classroom all of the time (Felder, 2005).
Argument 1 Do students learn better when their learning styles are accommodated?
“Underlying learning style research is the “Effects on improved test scores with testing
belief, verified by some studies, that students conditions matched to student style have been
learn best when they can address knowledge published, but there are also studies showing
in ways that they trust. If their orientation to no discernable effect attributable to learning
the world draws theory from concrete style variation.” (Curry, 1990, p. 52)
experience, then they will learn best through
doing rather than reflecting. If their personal
style is oriented around abstraction, then their
best learning will be abstract.” (O’Connor,
1999, paragraph 7)
“The optimal teaching style is a balanced one “The optimal teaching style is a balanced one
in which all students are sometimes taught in a in which all students are sometimes taught in a
manner that matches their learning style manner that matches their learning style
preferences, so they are not too uncomfortable preferences, so they are not too uncomfortable
to learn effectively, and sometimes in the to learn effectively, and sometimes in the
opposite manner, so they are forced to stretch opposite manner, so they are forced to stretch
and grow in directions they might be inclined and grow in directions they might be inclined
to avoid if given the option.” (Felder & Brent, to avoid if given the option.” (Felder & Brent,
2005, p. 62) 2005, p. 62)
“While mismatching is appropriate for
developmental reasons, students have more
positive attitudes towards school and achieve
more knowledge and skills when taught,
counseled or advised through their natural or
primary style rather than a style that is
secondary or undeveloped, particularly when
adjusting to a novel and new situation that
creates stress such as beginning experiences
in higher education.” (Matthews, 1991, p. 253)
“Our style of learning, if accommodated, can
result in improved attitudes toward learning
and an increase in academic achievement.”
(“Learning Styles,” 2006, paragraph 3)
“With all the diversity of students in your class,
it should be expected that somebody won't get
it. There are factors other than learning styles
with which you are contending.” (Ebeling,
2000, p. 247)
“In contrast, other theorists eschew all notions
of individual traits and argue that it is more
productive to look at the context-specific and
situated nature of learning and the idea of
learning biographies rather than styles or
approaches.” (Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall,
E. & Ecclestone, K., 2004, p. 2)
Argument 2 Are individual student learning styles worth evaluating?
“…theorists promote the idea of learning styles
instruments as a diagnostic assessment tool
that encourages a more self-aware reflection
about strengths and weaknesses.” (Coffield et
al., 2004, p. 3)
“The logic of lifelong learning suggests that
students will become more motivated to learn
by knowing more about their own strengths
and weaknesses as learners.” (Coffield et al.,
2004, p. 1)
“Information about style can help faculty
become more sensitive to the differences
students bring to the classroom. It can also
serve as a guide in designing learning
experiences that match or mismatch students'
styles, depending on the teacher's purpose.”
(Claxton & Murrell, 1989, paragraph 3)
“All people, including children, develop “For any assessment of learning style to be
dominant learning “modalities” which may considered valid, the learning style of an
change over time… By understanding these individual would need to be consistent over
modalities, and their child’s preferences, time.” (Robotham, 1999, paragraph 9)
adults can learn to effectively facilitate growth
and learning in their child…” (“Learning Style
Consultation,” 2006, paragraph 3)
“By becoming familiar with learning style
theory, you will be able to recognize your
students' style and you will be able to make
suggestions on how they can use that strength
to help them study.” (“Learning Styles,” 2006,
“…no learning style instrument is infallible.”
(Felder & Brent, 2005, p. 62)
“It is unclear whether learning style is
amenable to measurement or assessment.”
(Robotham, 1999, paragraph 8)
“The operationalization of learning style theory
encompasses three pervasive general
problems: (1) confusion in definitions, (2)
weakness in reliability and validity of
measurements, and (3) identification of
relevant characteristics in learners and
instructional settings.” (Curry, 1990, p. 50)
Argument 3 Is it possible to improve learning conditions equitably when
accommodating diverse learning styles?
“…in a differentiated classroom, the teacher is “Researchers have failed to address the
NOT planning for each individual student; this question of how it is possible to achieve a
would be impractical in a regular education tailoring of instructional approaches on
classroom. But the teacher is considering the anything other than an individual level.”
various learners in his/her class and their (Robotham, 1999, paragraph 16)
primary mode of learning so that every learner
has more opportunities to learn however s/he
learns best.” (Cooper, 2006, paragraph 10)
“You teach the whole class. Within that class “It is not always possible to take learning
are the unique individual learners. There is styles into account even if you know what they
comfort in knowing that they can be clustered are... For example, some learners are ‘early
into three, four, seven, or eight different birds’ while others are "night owls." In
groups, depending on whose ‘learning styles’ synchronous distance learning, learners who
scheme you are embracing.” (Ebeling, 2000, are not alert in the early morning are at a
p. 247) disadvantage for sessions held at that time.
Some like to have snacks while learning while
others find this a distraction. Some like to sit
on comfortable soft furniture and others on
hard furniture. Trying to apply all these
different preferences could be at the very least
impractical if not impossible!” (Santo, 2004,
“Our work (and our field) will be stronger when “I have 160 different students to think about – I
we devise ways to bring these multiple simply don’t have time to consider their
orientations to bear on the phenomena we individual needs. They have to adapt to my
study. The scholarly side of the academy class.” (Buckalew, 2006)
clearly profits when it recognizes multiple
points of view.” (O’Connor, 1999, paragraph 5)
“It follows that if completely individualized
instruction is impractical and one-size-fits-all is
ineffective for most students, a more balanced
approach that attempts to accommodate the
diverse needs of the students in a class at
least some of the time is the best an instructor
can do.” (Felder & Brent, 2005, p. 57)
Argument 4 If the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for the challenges of
adulthood, is it desirable to accommodate individual learning styles?
“If students become more independent in their “The aim is to make the student self-renewing
learning as a result of knowing their strengths and self-directed; to focus on integrative
and weaknesses, then negative effects from development where the person is highly
lower levels of contact between lecturers and developed in each of the four learning modes;
students will be counterbalanced if students active, reflective, abstract and concrete. Here,
develop more effective learning strategies the student is taught to experience the tension
which they can use outside formal contact and conflict among these orientations, for it is
time.” (Coffield et al., 2004, p. 1) from these tensions that creativity springs.”
“The benefit of accommodating multiple “To function effectively as engineers or
intelligences is that] students may develop members of any other profession, students will
strong problem solving skills that they can use need skills characteristic of each type of
in real life situations” (Giles, E., Pitre, S., & learner: the powers of observation and
Womack, S., 2003, paragraph 40) attention to detail of the sensor and the
imagination and abstract thinking ability of the
intuitor; the abilities to comprehend information
presented both visually and verbally, the
systematic analysis skills of the sequential
learner and the multidisciplinary synthesis
skills of the global learner, and so on.” (Felder
& Brent, 2005, p. 62)
The fundamental aspect of the debate over learning style accommodation is whether or not
students actually learn more when teachers practice differentiated instruction. While educators
have been discussing learning styles for several decades, the issue of educational effectiveness
largely remains an academic issue. Some researchers and educators argue that students learn
more when there is match between the learning styles of students and the teaching styles of
instructors. For example, Terry O’Connor asserts that learning style research indicates that
students learn best when they are taught according to their own style, although he also
acknowledges the benefits of having proficiency with multiple learning modalities (2006).
Educators like O’Connor, as advocates of accommodated instruction, believe that, if teachers
provide students with alternative learning experiences that address multiple learning styles,
greater learning will occur.
On the opposite side of this argument, however, other educators and researchers simply
point out that the effects of learning style accommodation are unknown rather than asserting
that matching instructional styles with student learning styles results in decreased learning. For
example, Lynn Curry claims that, despite some studies showing improvements in learning, other
studies show “no discernable effect attributable to learning style variation” (1990, p. 52).
Although Curry is not advocating against the accommodation of learning styles, she implies, by
indicating that the evidence about learning styles is inconclusive, that there is no way for
teachers to verify the effectiveness of their instructional adaptations.
A number of professionals engaged with this debate, however, embrace both sides of the
issue by arguing in favor of matching and mismatching teaching styles with student learning
styles. For example, learning style researchers Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent assert that
the best method of instruction is not only to match teaching styles with student learning styles in
order to ensure student comfort and effective learning, but also to intentionally mismatch them
in order to force students “to stretch and grow in directions they might be inclined to avoid if
given the option” (2005, p. 62). Rather than seeing learning styles as a one-sided issue,
educators and researchers taking this position see educational benefits resulting from greater
learning and the development of stronger learning skills.
Another argument in favor of accommodating learning styles takes into account the
educational and developmental stages of students. For example, Doris Matthews argues that,
although there may be positive developmental benefits to mismatching, students encountering
new learning situations and students with less sophisticated learning skills learn more effectively
and have better learning experiences when they are taught according to their primary learning
styles (1991). For Matthews and those sharing her perspective, matching teaching styles with
learning styles is an important way for instructors to help struggling learners and students
adjusting to unfamiliar academic settings.
Some educators also argue in favor matching teaching styles with learning styles, because it
can positively affect the way students feel about learning. For example, educators from the
Learning Assistance Center at the City College of San Francisco assert that accommodating
individual styles of learning “can result in improved attitudes toward learning” and improvements
in academic performance (“Learning Styles,” 2006, paragraph 3). In addition, based on their
research, R.J. Charkins, Dennis O’Toole, and James Wetzel argue that matching teaching
styles with learning styles is likely to improve both student attitudes about learning and
academic achievement, although they do not assert a causal relationship between these
variables (Charkins, R., O'Toole, D., & Wetzel, J., 1985).
An additional argument against the effectiveness of learning style accommodation is
provided by an advocate of the practice. David Ebeling argues that, due to the tremendous
diversity of learners and the complexity of the learning process, matching teaching styles with
learning styles is not necessarily a solution for struggling learners. Because “there are factors
other than learning styles with which you are contending,” he implies that instructors cannot
assume that accommodated instruction will result in greater learning (Ebeling, 2000, p. 247).
Although Ebeling personally practices accommodated instruction, he presents this argument in
order to give an accurate and balanced perspective about the effectiveness of matching
teaching styles with student learning styles.
In a similar attempt to present both sides of an educational issue, educators from the
United Kingdom point to the fact that some theorists advocate disregarding learning styles on
the grounds of pedagogical ineffectiveness. These theorists argue that, in trying to meet the
diverse learning needs of individual students, it is more productive to focus on individual
learning histories and the specific aspects of the educational context in which learning occurs
(Coffield et al., 2004). This argument, among all of the academic arguments about the
educational effectiveness of learning styles, is the most directly critical of accommodated
instruction. Rather than simply indicating inconclusive evidence about educational effectiveness
of learning styles, it asserts that there is a better way for teachers to help their students succeed
in the classroom than matching instruction to learning styles.
Another aspect of the learning style debate is whether it is even worthwhile evaluating
student learning styles. The issue of evaluation is significant, because, in order to match or
mismatch instructional style to a particular student or a group of students, teachers must be
aware of the individual learning styles of their students. Arguments in favor of evaluation rest on
the assumptions that there are valid and reliable methods of evaluating students learning styles,
and that either matching or mismatching teaching styles with learning styles has a significant
effect on learning outcomes. Approaches to evaluating learning styles vary from simple to
complex, and evaluations can be performed by teachers, psychologists, counselors, parents,
and even students themselves.
Some educators argue that evaluation is a worthwhile endeavor because it generates
information about individual learners that is valuable to teachers. For example, Claxton and
Murrell argue that information about individual learning styles is helpful for teachers who want to
be sensitive to individual differences and needs in the classroom. They also argue that,
depending on their objectives, teachers can use this information to plan instruction so that it
either matches or mismatches the styles of individual learners (1988). This suggests that the
motivation behind this particular argument is to have teachers utilize the information generated
from learning style evaluations in order to plan and instruct more effectively.
Other educators and researchers argue that evaluation is worthwhile because it generates
information that can help students to develop greater self-awareness. In the opinion of
Coffield’s group, self-awareness about one’s own style of learning is a highly valuable
metacognitive tool that, presumably, will equip the learner for academic success. They further
argue, however, that not only will students be more reflective and prepared for learning as a
result of knowing their strengths and weaknesses, but, that they will also become self-
empowered by this knowledge and, subsequently, will be more motivated to learn (Coffield et
al., 2004). The motivation of Coffield’s group is not only to help students become effective
learners, but also to have schools develop individuals who value knowledge and have the desire
to engage in learning.
Similarly, other educators tacitly endorse learning style evaluation by emphasizing the
important role of teachers in helping students to learn on their own. For example, educators
from one web site argued that teachers can use information about the learning strengths of
individual students in order to make suggestions about the most effective ways for them to study
(“Learning Styles,” 2006). Although this same web site also suggested that teachers can
perform evaluation independently by merely becoming familiar with learning style theory, its
principal motivation is not to make teachers learning style experts for their own sake. Rather, it
seeks to have teachers develop the knowledge and skills necessary to help their students
become effective self-directed learners.
Another argument for evaluating learning styles approaches evaluation in terms of learning
style change over time. For example, Parent Resource Centers of the Palouse, an organization
funded by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, asserts that learning styles
may change over time, particularly in young children. Subsequently, they argue that parents
should have their children evaluated in order to determine their “current preferred style of
learning.” As a non-profit organization offering learning style evaluation, the Parent Resource
Center’s stated motive for advocating evaluation is to help adults “effectively facilitate growth
and learning in their child” (“Learning Styles,” 2006, paragraph 3).
On the other side of this same argument, however, some educators assert that, if learning
styles do indeed change over time, then the value of learning style evaluation may be limited.
For example, while he acknowledges the existence of learning styles, business and industrial
education researcher David Robotham argues that any evaluation becomes invalid if an
individual’s learning style somehow changes over time. He also asserts, “given the lack of
agreement over the nature of learning style, and whether learning style is a stable characteristic,
it is surprising there exists a relatively wide range of instruments claiming to measure learning
style” (Robotham, 1999, paragraph 10). With this particular argument, Robotham appears to be
trying to demonstrate that, at the present time, it still is unknown if the wide array of instruments
used in learning style evaluation have complete validity.
Other arguments against evaluating individual learning styles are based on problems that
are inherent to the process of evaluation. For example, Robotham also argues that the
evidence is inconclusive about whether it is even possible to successfully measure or assess
individual learning styles (Robotham, 1999). Similarly, Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent
acknowledge that learning style instruments may have problems with accuracy and reliability,
and caution that “no learning style instrument is infallible” (Felder & Brent, 2005, p. 62).
Although they are both advocates of learning style evaluation, Felder and Brent present this
argument as a warning for instructors who engage in individual evaluation, but find results that
are not always true or consistent.
Finally, some educators argue that there are fundamental problems with the research that
serves as the basis for learning style theory and evaluation. For example, Lynn Curry argues
that there are problems with both the reliability and validity of data that is acquired and utilized in
learning styles research. In addition, she argues that testing of learning styles theories is
fundamentally flawed because studies have not been designed for disconfirming hypotheses,
have been subject to experimenter and participant bias, and have not utilized large enough
samples to be considered valid (1990). Curry’s goal of changing the way that learning style
research is implied by one of her closing arguments: “the conceptualizers, instrument
developers, and researchers in the learning styles field promise to deliver the power for
students, teachers, and parents to take control of learning environments,” but “the claims made
on their behalf remain to be systematically and comparatively evaluated in practice” (1990, p.
A third aspect of the learning style debate is whether teachers can equitably improve
learning for all students by accommodating their diverse learning styles. Traditional American
values – and, increasingly, American popular culture – call for equitable allocation of resources
for and treatment of persons involved in publicly-funded institutions. Public schools are no
exception. Laws dictate that all students have access to educational experiences of
comparable quality. Inevitably, some students will find academic success in the typical public
school educational environment. Proponents of differentiated learning argue that the
educational playing field is leveled when teachers adapt their instruction to individual students’
best (i.e. most effective) learning style.
According to educator David Ebeling, it becomes possible to address the unique learning
needs of all students within a single class by using a certain planning and instructional process.
He argues that, in order to successfully accommodate instruction, teachers must first develop a
plan to address the needs of the larger group, or that teachers much “teach the whole class”
(Ebeling, 2000, p. 247). Ebeling indicates that, since many learners can be clustered together
according to their learning styles, instructors should carry out this initial strategy by planning to
address the needs of these several groups. Then, instructors can focus on modifying
instructional plans to meet the more specific problems of those students not falling into a
particular cluster. As a teacher practicing and researching about accommodated instruction,
Ebeling advocates this approach because he believes that it has successfully improved learning
outcomes for his own students.
Theresa Cooper, a teacher in the New York City Public Schools, provides another argument
in favor of equitable learning style accommodation by asserting that “the teacher is not planning
for each individual student” (Cooper, 2006, paragraph 10). Acknowledging that such an
approach would be impractical in general education classrooms, she argues that it is possible to
improve learning conditions for all students by considering the learning styles of the class as a
whole, and subsequently accommodating instruction to meet the collective needs of the entire
class. By matching instructional styles to the learning styles of the entire class, Cooper asserts
that each individual learner benefits because they are provided with “more opportunities to learn
however s/he learns best” (Cooper, 2006, paragraph 10).
An alternative argument in favor of equitable learning approaches accommodated
instruction from the perspective of the diversity in the classroom. For example, O’Connor
argues that, in order for education to be equitable, the diverse learning needs of all students
within an educational context must be considered. Moreover, he attributes poor academic
achievement, lack of motivation, and resistance to learning to instructional strategies that fail to
recognize the diversity of each classroom. His emphasis on the importance of diversity is
evident as he opines, “the loss of opportunities to engage in our subjects from a variety of
orientations becomes an obvious flaw to those who recognize the inevitability of diverse points
of view in the world” (O’Connor, 1999, paragraph 6).
Believing that students learn best when class work and activities are individualized, the
benefits of accommodated instruction would appreciable from a parent or a student’s
perspective. It follows that concerned parents will want their child’s primary and secondary
classroom teachers to be familiar with his or her individual learning styles, in order to facilitate
the greatest likelihood of academic success. Teachers may also believe that the extra
preparation required to identify and accommodate individual students’ learning needs will be
worthwhile. Later in the year, the teacher may spend less time “re-teaching” ideas or concepts
to students who require (or would benefit at all from) differentiated instruction.
Contrarily, teachers may argue that the amount of time required to adequately assess
students’ individual learning needs and then to prepare, implement, and evaluate a variety of
lessons would be overwhelming. According to some teachers, the school day and the school
year are too short to allow for such an investment in research and lesson construction. Thomas
Buckalew, a forty-year veteran teacher in southeastern Michigan, expressed this point: “I have
160 different students to think about – I simply don’t have time to consider their individual
needs. They have to adapt to my class” (Buckalew, 2006). In order to ensure fairness for all
students, many teachers believe that, by setting a standard and clearly articulating expectations,
they provide individual students with the same opportunities for meeting and exceeding
Perhaps the most practical argument against the regimented use of differentiated instruction
in the classroom is that – regardless of the teacher’s ability to assess and plan for students’
learning style differences – the sheer variety of preferred “best practices” will be impossible to
accommodate in a single classroom. Working under the assumption that institutional structure
(i.e. class size, physical classroom space) remains constant, it stands to reason that the needs
of thirty-odd students cannot be met contemporaneously in a single classroom space.
For example, Santo mentions some of these differences, noting that “some [students] like to
have snacks while learning while others find this a distraction. Some like to sit on comfortable
soft furniture and others on hard furniture” (Santo, 2004, paragraph 10). Some students present
their understanding most thoroughly when speaking aloud or performing, while some students
prefer written exercises. Some students work best individually, while others prefer group work.
Some students learn best when information is relayed directly to them by an authority, while
others need to discover answers themselves through hands-on or experiential learning
Considering the very wide variety of individual differences, Santo suggests that it would not
be possible for teachers to accommodate instruction to meet the needs of each student in his or
her class at all times, because it would require nearly endless resources of space, physical
infrastructure, time, and supplies (2004). In addition, the problem raises other important
questions: should each student be able to choose not only their own seat but their own chair
and desk? Should every attempt by the teacher to assess student learning be offered as a
project of their choice, an essay, a subjective exam, a speech, and a conversation between
student and instructor? Such unlimited accommodations would intolerably disrupt the flow of
classroom learning and render effective instruction impossible.
Similarly, Felder and Brent assert that it may not be possible to effectively improve learning
for all students through accommodated instruction. Although they are not campaigning against
accommodated instruction, they point out that any attempts to effectively match teaching styles
to learning styles are, at best, a compromise. They argue, “it follows that if completely
individualized instruction is impractical and one-size-fits-all is ineffective for most students, a
more balanced approach that attempts to accommodate the diverse needs of the students in a
class at least some of the time is the best an instructor can do” (Felder & Brent, 2005, p. 57).
The balanced approach that Felder and Brent mention, however, inevitably entails a reduction in
the amount of accommodated instruction that some students receive, as part of the
Finally, researcher and educator David Robotham provides an important argument against
accommodated instruction being able to provide benefits to all members of the classroom.
Although he doesn’t advocate against accommodated instruction, he points out that learning
styles researchers have never answered whether it is even possible to successfully modify
instruction “on anything other than an individual level” (Robotham, 1999, paragraph 16).
Subsequently, if it is only possible to accommodate instruction at an individual level, and if, as
Santo suggests, there are too many individual differences for teachers to effectively
accommodate within a single classroom, it follows that accommodated instruction could not
bring benefits to all members of the classroom.
A fourth aspect of the learning style debate is ultimately rooted in the purpose of education
within society. Many educators argue that the most important purpose of education is to
prepare children and young adults for future education and entrance into the workforce. If
education is intended to prepare students for such adult challenges, is it desirable to
accommodate their diverse learning styles? In other words, will adults more effective and
productive when they are working and learning in their preferred styles, or when they are able to
adapt to and function in a variety of circumstances?
On one side of this issue, educators like Coffield and his associates assert that, by working
with and gaining an awareness of their own learning styles, including their learning strengths,
students ultimately develop the skills necessary to become self-directed learners (2004).
Subsequently, an important implication of this argument is that students who develop strong
independent learning and problem-solving skills will be better prepared to succeed in future
educational endeavors and in the workplace. On the other side of this issue, however, theorists
like Kolb concur that the purpose of education is to make the student’s self-directed in their
learning (1984). Kolb argues, however, that the most effective way to develop the independent
learning skills that are needed for academic and professional success is to have students
develop competencies in all modes of learning. In addition, he asserts that the experience of
becoming facile with multiple learning styles ultimately contributes to greater personal creativity.
Other educators approach the issue of whether it is desirable in the long run for teachers to
accommodate instruction in terms of developing the problem-solving skills needed for future
success. For example, although they frame the argument in terms of multiple intelligences,
Emily Giles, Sarah Pitre, and Sara Womack argue that it is desirable match teaching styles with
individual learning styles, because “students may develop strong problem solving skills that they
can use in real life situations” (2003, paragraph 40). On the other side of the argument,
however, educators and researchers like Felder and Brent argue that adults “need skills
characteristic of each type of learner” in order to succeed in any profession (2005, p. 62).
Subsequently, it would not be desirable to completely match teaching styles with individual
student learning styles from this perspective, because students need experience with multiple
learning modalities in order to develop a repertoire of strong problem-solving skills that can be
Although the issue of learning styles has important implications for classroom planning
and instruction, the debate appears to be largely academic. For example, among the eighteen
relevant sources cited, only seven are non-academic sources, and five out of these seven
sources offer arguments in favor of matching teaching styles with student learning styles. The
academic nature of the debate is also evident in the tone of its participants. For example, most
of the participants in favor of accommodated instruction, including non-academic sources based
their arguments on scientific evidence. Similarly, nearly all of the arguments against the use of
accommodated instruction were neither vocal nor opinionated, but were presented by educators
and researchers trying to provide a balanced picture of the entire issue.
For the first aspect of the debate, which addresses whether students actually learn better
when their learning styles are accommodated, some argue that academic achievement and
attitudes toward learning improve when instruction is accommodated either wholly or partially.
Researchers and educators on the other side of the argument, however, point out that evidence
about the effectiveness of accommodation is inconclusive, that accommodation may not be
immediately helpful to certain learners, and that it may be more productive to focus on other
aspects of individual learning. This opposing point of view is not vehemently argued, however,
because it is largely presented by academics who are trying to explore multiple perspectives on
the issue in an unbiased way. Moreover, it lacks strength, because it does not provide evidence
that accommodated instruction is ineffective or that it is in some way harmful to learning.
Therefore, since there is general agreement that individual students have different learning
characteristics, it is reasonable to conclude, as originally expected, that there may be benefits
associated with accommodating those characteristics.
For the second aspect of the debate, which addresses the value in evaluating individual
learning styles, some argue that the information obtained from evaluation can help students
develop an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, improve student motivation, help
teachers accommodate instruction, and help students’ ability to direct their own learning.
Despite the attraction of these assertions, however, there is not enough conclusive, compelling
evidence, to substantiate these claims. Contrarily, researchers and educators make a largely
academic but highly persuasive argument by asserting that it is unclear if it is possible to assess
learning styles by pointing to problems with the validity of learning style instruments as well as
the research on which they are based. Considering the wide availability of learning style
instruments and the importance attributed to evaluation, the evidence about faulty research and
the inherent problems of evaluation is unexpected. Therefore, while it is reasonable to assume
that all parties would benefit from knowing the learning characteristics of individual students, the
argument against formal evaluation points out the major shortcomings of learning style
instruments and research, subsequently indicating that, currently, there is not enough credible
scientific evidence to reasonably advocate formal learning style evaluation.
For the third aspect of the debate, which addresses whether accommodated instruction can
improve learning equitably, some argue that it is indeed possible to improve conditions for all
students by using effective teaching strategies and capitalizing on the diversity of all learners in
the classroom. Although diversity may be an important factor, the major strengths of this
argument are the pragmatic teaching strategies suggested by Ebeling (2000) and Cooper
(2006). For example, by conducting classes in as many instructional styles as possible, it may
be possible for teachers to successfully accommodate a wide array of individual learning styles
within a class. Moreover, by adapting this strategy of group accommodation, so that it accounts
for the specific styles of struggling learners, it may be viable to improve learning for all students.
The other side of this debate, however, also makes a strong argument about the extent to
which teachers are actually capable of accommodating both the needs of individual students
and of entire classes. Since time and resources are finite, no teacher is equipped to
accommodate every individual’s learning characteristics, rendering accommodated instruction a
compromise or a partial success. Nevertheless, when considering the idea of equity, it was not
expected that accommodated instruction would help all students to the same degree, but rather
that all students would obtain some sort of benefit from it. Subsequently, it seems reasonable
that accommodated instruction can be equitable, bringing some benefit to every member of the
class, when carried out according to the suggested strategies.
Assuming that school is intended as preparation for the challenges of adulthood, the fourth
aspect of the debate addresses whether it is actually desirable to accommodate instruction. On
one side of the debate, some argue that accommodated instruction can help students become
self-directed in their learning, while also helping them to develop stronger problem-solving skills.
On the other side of the debate, however, researchers make exactly the same argument,
asserting that, in the long run, forcing students to style-flex helps them to become more
independent in their learning and better problem-solvers within a variety of contexts. It was
originally expected that there could be developmental benefits to both matching and
mismatching teaching styles with student learning styles. Due to the sound logic of both
arguments, and lacking further conclusive evidence, it remains possible that both instructional
strategies could have positive developmental effects that better prepare learners for the
challenges of adulthood.
After fully evaluating the arguments on both sides of the learning styles debate, it is
reasonable to conclude that teachers should accommodate instruction so that the needs of all
students are being met at least part of the time, while also forcing their students to style-flex. By
engaging in both strategies, teachers will ensure that their students not only learn more
effectively, but that they also become self-directed learners with strong problem-solving learning
skills that can be applied to a variety of educational and professional environments. Moreover,
although it may not be worthwhile to formally evaluate individual learners, accurate information
about individual learning characteristics or preferences can only be helpful to teachers engaging
in accommodated instruction. Finally, although teachers have neither the time nor the
resources to adapt instruction so that each learner benefits to the same extent, careful matching
and mismatching of teaching and learning styles can ensure that all students develop
knowledge and problem-solving skills that will help them to succeed in a diverse, complex, and
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