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Learning, Learning Theories and Learning Styles

© Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

Learning is an inseparable phenomenon to human life. From the facial and oral responses of the least infant to the daily news of the elderly, human beings continually, consecutively, and consciously learn. As Plato said, "Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life" (Mayer, 1966, p. 88). Though learning is a common experience permeating the length and breadth of our lives, it is by no means a simple or fully explicable. Like many other human experiences learning is made intelligible by theories, aided by models, and advanced by professional educators but nonetheless, remains enigmatic.

The foundations of the learning theory disagreements at least reach to the two seminal thinkers in the West, Plato (ca. 427-348 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Essentially the debate has existed for 23 centuries under the terms rationalism and empiricism. Plato's worldview was a synthesis of Parmenides and Heraclitus . As such it was a way to remedy the dichotomous variable that all is one or all is many, being or becoming. Plato's solution was to have an absolute world of being (the forms) and this world of becoming. Knowledge only comes from the world of the forms, through recollection--a kind of rational intuition. Plato is the father of rationalism and as such is the father of all learning theories which assert the primacy of the intellect or cognition in learning.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is the father of empiricism. Aristotle learned well from his teacher, Plato, that one cannot escape the universals--the forms. However, Aristotle was not satisfied with positing an other worldly, absolute-being-existence for universals. Rather, he argued that we abstract universals from our experience of particular things. As the father of empiricism, Aristotle is the father of learning theories which make experience the origin of knowledge and source of learning. The rationalist/empiricist debate continued through the Middle Ages and into the modern period with Locke (1632-1704) and Hume (1711-1776) on the empiricist's side and Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) on the rationalist's side. Following which some attempts were made at a synthesis, most notably Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In the 19th Century the a second Copernican Revolution of science changed the face of many disciplines--Darwin's (1809-1882) Origin of Species. The evolutionary worldview it espoused served as the paradigm for almost every discipline imaginable from religion to economics to education. One wonders how such a uniform paradigm shift could have been justified.

Still, systematic research began on learning as a result of new views (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). In general terms we may say the inquiry into learning and the nature of human knowledge shifted from philosophers discussions to the newly formed psychological laboratory. With the Baconian scientific method thoroughly tested (pardon the pun) with the impressive results of almost modern technology to show, the "soft sciences" worked for the same products of research.


We may say confidently that education would not be a discipline without her handmaiden, psychology. Psychological research provided the conceptual framework in the scientific frontier of the late 19th Century. Learning theories, therefore, followed the three waves of psychological development (?) in the 20th Century. Rid from the metaphysical speculation of the philosophers and the authority of dogmaticism, psychoanalysis, behaviorism and humanistic psychology was free to probe the depths of human nature. In combination and reaction to the three waves, definite learning theories were forged.

Learning theories and psychological frameworks can be divided in several ways. One interesting outline is to divide theories into (1) mechanistic views and (2) organismic views. In very broad strokes that division may be helpful but even better are the four theories discussed by Merriam and Caffarella (1991), behaviorist, gestalt/cognitive, humanist and social learning theories.

Briefly, behaviorism discusses learning in terms of change as a result of environmental stimuli. Cognitive and developmental theorist see the processing of information as the substance of learning. Humanistic theory adds a nondiscrete component beyond overt behavior and information processing, the personality. Social learning theory as best espoused by Bandura is an extension of the behaviorist's views to account for the extremely important social impact on learning through interaction and observation of others (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). All of these theories have explanatory power. All these theories, in fact, account very well for certain learning experiences. How then, is one to conclude a theory to be most or correct or for all practical purposes, true?

Knowles (1978) has given an insightful word. In connection to adults in the learning setting he proposes an eclectic approach to learning theory by analyzing the relationship between teaching models and the learning situation (figure 5-3, p. 106).

For training wherein the learners ability is low and the task is simple, behaviorist models work and when the learners ability is high and the task is complex, humanistic psychology work. Mediating the continuum is the Gestalt and cognitive models. Needless to say, andragogy and/or self-directed learning fits in the nest of the humanist.

Knowles surely has a pragmatic concern and his suggestion is well as far as that goes. Yet, these theories conflict. Inasmuch as they are inconsistent with each other, all of them cannot be true. So Knowles' suggestion is unsatisfying for the researcherwho needs a conceptual framework and wishes to find the most true theory. As Carl Rogers has said, "The person who attempts to reconcile [different schools of thought] by compromise will find himself left with a superficial eclecticism which does not increase objectivity, and which leads nowhere" (cited in Knowles, 1978, p. 107). Further, from many other things suggested by Knowles, not the least of which is andragogy, it is clear to which camp our patriarch has become aligned.



By way of succinct criticism, each theory has its weaknesses. Behaviorism is in my opinion the weakest since it is a self-defeating1 position. I would spell out the incoherence of behaviorism in this way. Behaviorism asserts predeterminism based on materialism2 through conditioning (Skinner, 1971, p. ). But, the thought that argues for the truth of behaviorism is also determined. And in that case saying something is true is an illusion since such a materially determined proponent cannot step outside one's determined thoughts to arbitrate truth over falsehood. It is like making a ladder of water to climb out of the ocean. Other examples of self-refuting components within behaviorism can be found such as the implicit contradiction in its claim to offer a "better" world and its lack of transcendence to make moral judgments. If the behaviorist's actions are determined, he cannot transcend that determinism to assert what ought to be determined. Thus, the behaviorist on his own principles cannot know the truth of his system, nor can he freely decide to implement his principles to change the world for the better, since he cannot arbitrate good and evil being, himself, conditioned to respond without rational freedom. While an occasional graduate student wonders with a certain pessimistic aura whether Skinner could be right, the rest of the world issues forth just as though there really is freedom and dignity. Would it not awake them from their dogmatic slumbers to discover that which they prize above all is only the epiphenomena of conditioning? For these reasons, at least, behaviorism cannot be accepted as a comprehensive theory.


The Gestalt views have an initial appeal. Especially as developmentalists like Piaget have formulated them. Nevertheless, a reductionism is still at the base of this perspective. Is learning to be reduced to information processing? Learning in this view has less to do with a person than the artificial intelligence model borrowed from machines. It also presupposes a view of reality which sees the world outside the mind as raw data which must be processed, stored and retrieved. But if the world outside the mind is uninterpreted, how do we know we have interpreted the world correctly? Or more to the point, those the cognitive theorists study are outside their minds and how do they know they have arrived correctly at their cognitive theory? Indeed, given their evolutionary assumptions, they cannot know it. Even aside from this internal critique, prima facie people act as more than information processors. They relate to others as persons.

The social learning theorists, as I have already stated, are resting on the behaviorists' world view and as such they fall prey to the same criticisms state above. If they do not depend on behaviorist's assumptions then it seems plausible that they could be assimilated into the humanist's view.

Humanistic Psychology

The humanistic psychology of Mazlow and Rogers is complex. Unwilling to accept a mechanistic view of human nature and seeing the fallacy of reducing learning to overt behavior or information processing, this approach invokes another less defined element, personality. Sacrificing specific solutions and determined "scientific" conclusions the humanists see aspects of human nature which are less measurable. The take as foundational many ideas which are generally accepted: people as able to control their destiny, inherently good, genuinely free, having choice before consequence and unlimited potential for growth (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991, p. 132). Critically, one should ask what the scientific merit of such a view is? Though psychology was set free from philosophy, it seems that these views are least scientific of all. After all can a person's inherent goodness be subject to testing with scientific method? Another criticism which can be raised is the inefficiency of this view. Ockam's razer can be applied to a view which possibly supposes many unnecessary assumptions. Or to put it in another way, if the behaviorist can get results by looking only at behavior and conditioning, etc., there is no need to suppose there is a ghost in the machine or something beyond what can be measured and controlled.

How does one explain the results of the behaviorist's success? Also, a more foundational question may be posed to the humanist. What justifies these rather optimistic beliefs about humanity especially in light of the brutal travesties which we have seen in this century alone? It seems contrary to fact to say that Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tsa Tung were "inherently good." Finally, are humanists ready to own up to a worldview in which their views fit? In short, the metaphysical beliefs which give the best account of their views are theistic.

Humanistic Psychology and Its Worldview

In short, the metaphysical beliefs which give the best account of their views are theistic. Atheism cannot account for the uniqueness of humanity in the humanist's sense. Pantheism inherently devalues personality as less than the impersonal everything. Panentheism, as in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1929), is an improvement over crass pantheism. However, it still sees humanity as only a more highly developed nexus of events, qualitatively no better than the community of events comprising a stone. Deism and finite godism can be dismissed an unsatisfying aberration of theism. Theism, then, is the last possibility of a full- orbed worldview supporting the humanist's claims. Christian theism makes a very suitable foundation for humanistic psychology, excepting a clarification about inherent goodness of man. That could easily be resolved by entitling that inherent goodness as the imago Dei, the image of God in which people are made (Hoekema, 1986) and by distinguishing that from the part of human nature which is characterized by alienation and which sustains wrong attitude, thought and action.

Though to some the previous paragraph is wasted toner, there is a growing necessity to defragment our knowledge and encourage integration. A coherent philosophy of education should be considered as the necessary foundation for learning theory. As Nichols (1991) has said, "Your philosophy of education must be based on your philosophy of life." It could be arranged in this way:

educational practice

educational policy

educational philosophy

philosophical world and life view (p. 17)

One aspect of an educational philosophy is a learning theory. Given the conceptual framework of the humanist and the theistic foundation for it, I will now turn to the practical outworking of the learning theory.

LEARNING STYLES If people are unique as the humanist's suggest and if learning in adulthood is characteristically controlled by the previously sighted assumptions, individual differences in learning are to be expected. This brings us to the final topic for consideration, learning styles. The most popular definition of learning style is given by R. M. Smith (1982) in Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults. Smith defines learning style as the "individual's characteristic ways of processing information, feeling, and behaving in learning situations" (p. 2). Price (1983) adds that when people learn, they perceive, think, interact with instructors, methods, and environments. They develop tendencies and preferences that accompany learning. This development brings about one's learning style, a characteristic way of learning.

Setting aside, for the moment, the critical questions one might pose to the learning style enthusiast, consider how one might discover his or her learning style. There is a simple way to consider this. It occurs to me that a person wishing to diagnose his or her style might simply reflect on five or ten learning experiences and describe the content, situation, process, and mental procedure. From this reflection a pattern might emerge. This pattern would indicate one's style. While this kind of diagnosis may or may not yield fruitful results, there are only a few ways to "get at" a person's learning style, observation, interview and/or diagnostic instruments. The following is a list of some of the instruments which have been developed (these are cited in Price, 1983, but he takes them from Kirby, 1979; Dunn, Dunn, and Price, 1981; Keefe 1979). I have arranged them such that each is identified, the definition of learning the instrument author uses is indicated and a general description with applications and implications is included.

A List of Learning Style Instruments

Learning Style Inventory (LSI), Canfield and Laferty

Learning Style Inventory (LSI) & Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS),Dunn, Dunn, and Price

Transaction Ability Inventory, Anthony Gregorc

Cognitive Interest Inventory, Joseph Hill

Teacher Assessment of Students Learning Styles, David Hunt

Learning Style Inventory (LSI), David Kolb

Child Rating Form, Ramirez and Castaneda

Inventory of Learning Processes, Ronald Schmeck

The literature describing cognitive style and learning style is somewhat confusing. Some authors use the two terms interchangeably, others view cognitive style as the broader term and others see learning style as the more broad term. The dubious, at best, distinction is that cognitive style is less concerned with the learning environment than learning style (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991).

Other criticisms may raised such as the weakness of instruments. The most popular instrument, Kolb's Learning Style Inventory of 1985, has frequently been criticized for lack of reliability and validity. Research suggests that the LSI of 1985 has weak internal consistency and weak stability and the revised version of 1986 has no better stability coefficients than its predecessor (Atkinson, 1989; 1991). Other studies question its reliability, show it to have poor stability, and poor split-half reliability (Wilson, 1986).

Though there are problems, that some learning differences exist cannot be denied. In the literature relating to learning styles much support can be found for the basic concept if not validity for instruments. Learning styles are related to learner achievement and satisfaction. Much of this research has not involved adults, but the usefulness of learning style diagnosis for higher and continuing education is clear (Smith, 1982). Despite some ambiguity and differences in definition, learning style inventories, have been useful to both students and instructors (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991). Many studies demonstrate the effectiveness of designing the learning environment in consideration of student's learning styles (Mickler & Zippert, 1987; Partridge, 1989; Pelton, 1983; Sweeney, 1988; Conti & Fellenz, 1991; Horan, 1991). Learning styles and certain diagnostic instruments have been useful and validated in cross-culturally settings (Katz, 1986). Learning styles are even used by the Peace Corps in their training materials for use with foreign teachers (1986).


The philosophical implications of continuing affirmation of learning styles are, of course, continued research in the theoretical framework of learning styles generally and certain important inventories specifically. This area is a rich source for academic research in adult education as is a related area, learning disabilities.

Practically, educators can diagnose learning styles in order to (1) make better program development and instruction decision, (2) help individuals with problems, strengths, and opportunities--to learn how to learn better and (3) more effectively design the learning environment for the learners. Individuals can benefit from an assessment especially in order to become a more "balanced learner" as some of the instrument authors suggest. "For some time now I have been aware of the fact that the products of our educational system don't know how to learn--they only know how to be taught" (Knowles, 1978, p. 176). Understanding learning, learning theories and learning styles enables the learner to move one step closer to being a truly proactive learner. It is to this end philosophies, theories and learning styles should lead us.


Atkinson, G. (1989). Kolb's Learning Style Inventory--1985: Test-retest deja vu. Psychological Reports, (64)3, 991-995.

Atkinson, G. (1991). Kolb's Learning Style Inventory: A practitioner's perspective.

Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, (23)4, 149-161.

Conti, G. J. & Fellenz, R. A. (1991). Teaching adults: Tribal colleges must respond to the unique needs and talents of adult students. Journal of American Indian Higher Education, (2)4, 18-23.

Dunn, R., Dunn, K., and Price, G. (1981). Learning Style Inventory manual. Lawrence, KA: Price Systems.

Hoekema, A. A. (1986). Created in God's Image. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed.

Horan, M. (1991). Attributes of exemplary community college teachers: A review of the literature. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 346 900)

Katz, N. (1986). Construct validity of Kolb's Learning Style Inventory, using factor analysis and Guttman's Smallest Space Analysis. (Hebrew U of Jerusalem, Hadassah School of Occupational Therapy, Israel) Perceptual and Motor Skills, (63)3, 1323- 1326.

Keefe, J. W. (1979). Student learning styles. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principles.

Knowles, M. S. (1978). The adult learner: A neglected species (Second ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing Co.

Mayer, F. (1966). A history of educational thought. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Books, Inc.

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Mickler, M. L. & Zippert, C. P. (1987). Teaching strategies based on learning styles of adult students. Community and Junior College Quarterly of Research and Practice, (11)1, 33-37.

Moreland, J. P. (1987). Scaling the secular city. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Nichols, C. H. (1991). Building the philosophical foundation. Christian Education Journal, 11, 17-29.

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Smith, R. M. (1982). Learning how to learn: Applied theory for adults. Chicago: Follett.

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1Self-defeating or self-refuting positions entail a contradiction. Self-defeating statements are implicitly contradictory, for instance, "I cannot write a word of English." "If a statement is self-refuting, it refers to itself, it fails to satisfy its own criteria of acceptability, and it cannot be true" (Moreland, 1987, p. 92).

2I cannot take time here to argue in detail demonstrating that behaviorism as a physicalist view of the universe is logically bound to material determinism. However, others have adequately demonstrated this conclusion with various arguments (Williams, 1990; Moreland, 1987). Generally the arguments which succeed show that if there is no transcendent being (i.e., God) then the universe is an infinite nexus of material cause/effect sequences. In which case, everything must be exactly as it is. This view does away with the transcendence of rationality and therefore, the claim of the materialist that his position is true. Thus, Williams (1990) says, "The naturalist [materialist or physicalist] must therefore give up either his naturalism or the right to assert that his naturalism is true" (p. 4).