Understanding Learning Styles

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning that work best for them. This Teaching Tip discusses the distinction between learning styles and learning preferences, and summarizes the Solomon-Felder index of learning styles.

The research on learning styles

There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. They state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style (Pashler, et al., 2008).

In the study, Matching Learning Style to Instruction Method: Effects on Comprehension, Rogowsky and colleagues (2015) conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that providing instruction based on individuals’ preferred learning styles improves learning. They found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught. For example, learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection.

Important considerations when using learning styles

Learning style preferences refer to the “characteristic strengths and preferences in the ways [people] take in and process information” (Felder, 1996). Felder (2020) stresses the following when understanding and applying learning styles:

  • Learning styles are not pairs of strict either-or categories. People can shift between preferences depending on the context and how strong their preference is.
  • Learning styles are not fixed and can change over time alongside lived and professional experiences.
  • All learning style preferences are likely represented in your classroom. Instruction should routinely address all categories of the learning style model rather than focus on only one.
  • Learning styles should not be used to determine a students' major or profession. Learning style preferences provide no indication of what students are or are not capable of.

According to Felder (2020), the optimal balance of instruction "depends on the subject, the level of the course, the prior knowledge of the students, and the familiarity of the instructor with alternative teaching strategies...When that balance is achieved, all students are taught sometimes in their preferred categories, so they are not too uncomfortable to learn, and sometimes in their less preferred categories, so they can build critically important skills they might never acquire from matched instruction." (Felder, 2020)

Soloman-Felder Model

The Soloman-Felder model of learning styles incorporates most of the major approaches to understanding learning preferences and is designed for use with college and university students to self-test their learning preferences. "A learning style model is a small set of learning style dimensions selected to provide instructors with a useful— but not all-encompassing—collection of guidelines for designing instruction" (Felder, 2020).  Each of the four scales of the Soloman-Felder index of learning styles has two opposite preferences. Everyone uses all preferences at different times, but not usually with equal levels of confidence. 

The active/reflective scale: How do you prefer to process information?

Active Reflective
Active learners learn by doing something with information. They prefer to process information by talking about it and trying it out. Reflective learners learn by thinking about information. They prefer to think things through and understand things before acting.

The sensing/intuitive scale: How do you prefer to take in information?

Sensing Intuitive
Sensing learners prefer to take in information that is concrete and practical. They are oriented towards details, facts, and figures and prefer to use proven procedures. They are realistic and like practical applications. Intuitive learners prefer to take in information that is abstract, original, and oriented towards theory. They look at the big picture and try to grasp overall patterns. They like discovering possibilities and relationships and working with ideas.

The visual/verbal scale: How do you prefer information to be presented?

Visual Verbal
Visual learners prefer visual presentations of material – diagrams, charts, graphs, pictures. Verbal learners prefer explanations with words – both written and spoken.

The sequential/global scale: How do you prefer to organize information?

Sequential Global
Sequential learners prefer to organize information in a linear, orderly fashion. They learn in logically sequenced steps and work with information in an organized and systematic way. Global learners prefer to organize information more holistically and in a seemingly random manner without seeing connections. They often appear scattered and disorganised in their thinking yet often arrive at a creative or correct end product.

Adapted from: Felder, R. (1996). Matters of Style. ASEE Prism, December, pp. 18-23. See also : Felder, R. & Soloman, B. (2002) Index of Learning Styles Page.

Learning strategies for your students


  • Compensate for lack of discussion by scheduling regular meetings with advising faculty member or seek out other students interested in same or similar topics and organise discussion groups
  • When developing your work to assess, find creative ways to use the material learned
  • Talk about material learned with family and friends


  • Schedule time to reflect on material
  • Don’t just read – stop periodically to review the material and think of possible questions or applications
  • Write short summaries of materials read
  • Use reflective writing tasks (i.e., journals)


  • Make connections to the real world
  • Seek out specific examples of concepts and procedures
  • Brainstorm about real world connections with your advising faculty member, other students, family, or friends


  • Seek out interpretation and theory to link together facts
  • Try to find theoretical connections to material learned
  • Discuss theories and interpretations with your advising faculty member
  • Take care not to miss the details when producing work to assess


  • Seek out diagrams, graphs, sketches, schematics, photographs, flow charts, or other visual representations of material
  • Review videos and animations of material
  • Organize material into a concept map (or flow chart)
  • Colour code your notes


  • Write summaries and outlines of material 
  • Convert diagrams, graphs, etc., into written descriptions
  • Meet with advising faculty member regularly to discuss material
  • Organise discussion groups with other students
  • Explain material to family and friend


  • Learn material in steps
  • Ask advising faculty member to fill in any skipped steps when explaining information
  • Take time to organize material in a logical order: themes, chronological, steps, etc.
  • Try to strengthen global skills by relating new topics to material already learned


  • Generate the big picture before trying to master details
  • Seek out general review articles that summarize literature before reading individual research papers
  • Skim through headings/subheadings before you read material carefully
  • Instead of spending a little time on a subject daily, try to schedule larger blocks of time less often to immerse yourself in the subject
  • Find connections to material already learned


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


Felder, R. (1996). Matters of Style. ASEE Prism, December, pp. 18-23

Felder, R. & Soloman, B. (2002). Learning Styles and Strategies.

Felder, R. (2020). “Opinion: Uses, Misuses, and Validity of Learning Styles.”  Advances in Engineering Education, 8(1). https://www.engr.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/drive/1tKCP5oEAV5VV4Yb97j-IG_geuBxCQqB6/2020-AEE%20Learning%20Styles%20Opinion%20Piece.pdf

Massa, L. & Mayer, R. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style?. Learning and Individual Differences - LEARN INDIVID DIFFER. 16. 321-335. 10.1016/j.lindif.2006.10.001. 

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest Report, 9(3). 

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64-78.

Weale, S. (2017, March 13). Teachers must ditch 'neuromyth' of learning styles, say scientists. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education


CTE teaching tips

University resources

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Understanding Your Learning Style. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.