Learning Strategies and Learning Styles by Ronald R. Schmeck


I recently read this classical text on learning styles and was instantly captivated by it. The author presents a very subtle yet a profound insight into this much discussed subject in educational psychology. While searching for a picture that could best classify the following excerpt below, i was instantly smitten by the picture that you see on your right.

The reader who approaches this topic for the first time may be confused by the usage of the terms “cognitive style” and “learning style.  “Snow, Corno, and Jackson (1996), under the heading “personal styles “, write that “no category we have covered contains a more voluminous, complex and controversy-laced literature than that of personal styles. They classified the kinds of constructs that have been studied under six headings. These are:

Cognitive styles” involved in perception and thinking (e.g. field independence versus dependence, reflection versus impulsivity.

Learning styles” involved in approaches to learning and studying (e.g.  Deep versus surface processing, comprehension learning versus operation learning).

Expressive styles,” involved in verbal or nonverbal communication (e.g. tempo, constricted versus expansive).

Response styles” involved in self-perception and self-report (e.g., acquiescence, deception). “Defensive styles” involved in accommodating anxiety and conflict (e.g. obsessive compulsive, hysterical),”Cognitive controls” a subset of style like but function-specific and uni-polar controls on attention and behaviour (e.g. constricted versus flexible control)”.

Riding and Rayner (1998) argued that learning styles are a subset of cognitive styles, and in this they agreed with Sternberg and Grigorenko (1997), who also reviewed the literature on this concept. Sternberg and Grigorenko classified styles as cognition centered, personality centered, or activity centered. Those that are cognition centered have a relationship with ability and measures of intelligence, The MBTI personality measure that has been much used among engineering students is as its focus implies personality centered. The other instrument that has appealed to engineers, The Learning Styles Inventory (Kolb) is activity-centered. It is a consolation to this writer that Snow, Corno and Jackson(1996) decided not to make any sharp distinction between learning styles and cognitive styles, or between styles and approaches. Nevertheless, there have been some distinctions and we begin with a discussion of learning strategies.

Learning strategies are devices that we use to cope with the learning environments we find ourselves in. Learning styles are dispositions we have to learning. They are preferred ways of organizing what we see and think. It has been shown that learning environments and, in particular, the assessments used can have a harmful or less than positive effect on learning, as for example, if they cause surface learning. For this reason the effects of an outcomes-based approach to assessment needs to be evaluated in terms of its effects on learning. From the perspective of engineering it has been shown that engineers require a variety of learning styles when they are engaged in projects. They need, for example, to be both convergent and divergent thinkers. The case for this view is presented. A brief discussion of field independent and field-dependent styles of thinking follows. Although spatial ability is not strictly speaking a style, it is important in engineering design. Engineers need to be able to visualize, and consequently they need a highly developed spatial ability.

Therefore, since we have predispositions to learn, the style that we have may be in conflict with the style of teaching to which we are exposed, a major question is whether teaching and learning styles should be matched. Given that engineers need a variety of styles, it is incumbent on teachers to foster their development, and that suggests teachers may have to change their teaching styles. Engineers have used a number of instruments to determine the learning styles of their students. These include Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory and a summary of work that has been done to use it as a scheme for the design of instruction is given. Variations of the Kolb model are summarized in particular the 4MAT scheme and Honey and Mumford model.

Felder and Silverman identified 32 learning styles and developed an inventory to test for these among engineering students. This is discussed. Style and personality are related and influence the way we learn in particular environments. Engineers have been particularly interested in the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator, and much is known about the personality profiles of engineering students from this test. Much attention has been paid in higher education to learning strategies although it seems that in engineering education more attention has been focused on learning styles. However, in relation to the learning of concepts, strategies are very important, and the strategies that students employ may be strongly influenced by the instructional method and assessment procedures used (Heywood, 2000).

Marton found that “for some (students) learning is through discourse and for others learning is discourse”. Those who adopt the former strategy get involved in the activity while those who take the latter view allow learning to happen to them. It is this second group who are surface learners, who pay only superficial attention to the text, who are passive, who do not reflect, and who do not appreciate that understanding involves effort.

The complexity of learning and points out the fact that different learning environments such as the disciplines or those deriving from the culture can influence the conceptions that we have of learning.


Felder, R. M and L. K.Silverman (1988). Learning and teaching styles in engineering education. Engineering Education, 78,674-681.

Heywood, J (2000). Assessment in Higher Education Student Learning, Teaching, Programmes and Institutions. Jessica Kingsley, London.

Marton, F., Dall’ Alba, G., and E. Beaty (1993). Conceptions of Learning. International Journal of Education,19,(3),277-299.

Schmeck, Ronald R. , 1988. Learning Strategies and Learning Styles (Perspectives on Individual Differences). 2nd ed. na: Springer.

Snow, R. E., Como, L., and D. Jackson(1996). Individual differences in affective and conative functions. In D. C. Berliner and R. C. Calfe (eds.).  Handbook of Educational Psychology. American Psychological Association. Macmillan, New York.

Sternberg, R. J., and E. L. Grigorenko (1997). Are cognitive styles still in style? American Psychologist, 52,700-712.