Learning Styles and Achievement Goal Theory

Motivation: Achievement Goal Theory

Achievement goal theory (AGT) is an example of a taxonomical theory. That is, it presents a taxonomy by which certain observations can be grouped together and classified. The elements being categorized in AGT are different types of achievement goals students assume in an academic setting: task/mastery goals, performance goals, and work-avoidance goals.

A different taxonomy is proposed in the first reading (Ford & Nichols, 1992). They present a comprehensive taxonomy of possible human goals. Although this taxonomy has not been widely researched, it gives some interesting ideas to consider. This is provided as the first reading for this topic as it draws on the same theoretical research base from which AGT was developed. Note: The Nicholls of AGT is not the same Nichols of the first reading.

The connection between learning in a social context and performing in a social context provides the thread of continuity between sociocultural learning and AGT. As you read, pay careful attention to the social and the individual elements of AGT.


Ford, M. E., & Nichols, C. W. (1992). A taxonomy of human goals and some possible applications. In M. E. Ford & D. H. Ford (Eds.), Humans as self- constructing living systems (pp. 289–311). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Nolen, S. B. (1988). Reasons for studying: Motivational orientations and study strategies. Cognition and Instruction, 5(4), 269–287.

Elliot, A. J. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1996). Approach and avoidance achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: A mediational analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(3), 461–475.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., & Middleton, M. (2001). Performance-approach goals: Good for what, for whom, under what circumstances, and at what cost? Journal of educational psychology, 93(1), 77–86.

Butler, R. (2006). Are mastery and ability goals both adaptive? Evaluation, initial goal construction and the quality of task engagement. British journal of educational psychology, 76(3), 595–611.

Introduction: Lectures & Learning Styles

First, there are serious flaws with the theory supporting the existence of learning styles. Second, ignoring the first issue, learning styles are not prescriptive but preferential. (If you note the authors that have mentioned learning styles to date, they refer to a preference for a particular style as opposed to a fixed trait that is a person’s learning style.) Third, catering to a student’s particular learning style almost completely contradicts the very aims of lifelong learning. Fourth, learning styles—in the context of supporting lifelong learning—are best explored from the perspective of how to adapt to different learning environments (as opposed to having the environment adapt to you). Fifth, learning styles can become an attributional element/excuse that hinders epistemic growth (we will explore this more in the next motivational discussion).

With all of that said, I do strongly believe that the concept of a learning style can greatly help facilitators support their students’ learning, but only when used in a critical manner.

Over the past two decades, one of the most noticeable effects of the learning style movement is the vilification of the lecture in any learning environment. The first reading (Bain, 2004) presents a critical examination of the use of the lecture in higher education.


Bain, K. (2004). How do they conduct class. In What the Best College Teachers Do (pp. 98–134). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Drysdale, M. T. B., Ross, J. L., & Schulz, R. A. (2001). Cognitive learning styles and academic performance in 19 first-year university courses: Successful students versus students at risk. Journal of education for students placed at risk, 6(3), 271–289.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105–119.

Nolting, P. D. (2008). How to use learning styles to improve memory. In Math Study Skills Workbook (3rd ed., pp. 91–95). Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Sandmire, D. A. & Boyce, P. F. (2004). Pairing of opposite learning styles among allied health students. Journal of allied health, 33(2), 156–163.

Critical Reflection

Critical reflection often means being able to defend both sides of an argument. In fact, some would suggest that being able to provide both positive and negative supports for an argument strengthens the overall argument (be it for or against). If you were asked to provide an argument in support of learning styles, what would it be? If you were asked to provide an argument against learning styles, what would it be?

Many instructors (both novice and expert) promote the idea of creating a curriculum for each individual learning style. However, the argument overlooks the fact that if you have a class of 25 students, then you technically need to create 25 different lesson plans. This simply is not realistic. The argument that I support is the idea of helping students to self-identify their learning style preference, and then provide them support for using that information to support their own learning. How might you encourage students and learners to assess and utilize their learning style preferences?


In this weeks readings the topic of learning styles was raised. What learning technique works best for you and why?

- Visual
- Auditory
- Tactile/concrete
- Social Individual or
- Social group

And, how do you personally adapt to different learning environments to facilitate lifelong learning?


(Good comment from Sonia)

I don't know that I really have a 'style' as such. In different situations and in different contexts different methods work for me but overall I tend to agree with Pashler (2008) that 'learning styles' are more learning preferences.

Like Pashler, I think it's probably a mistake to imagine that people are entirely unique snowflakes in need of special teaching approaches. Learners have teaching methods they prefer and differing levels of ability and self-efficacy, but variances in performance are probably more down to a combination of ability and self-efficacy (Schunk, 2004).


Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2004). Self-efficacy in education revisited: Empirical and applied evidence. In McInerney DM. & Etten SV. (Eds.), In Big theories revisited (pp. 115-138). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

In the style of our unit coordinator, I'll also admit a bias against Learning Styles. Well, not so much a bias, but because there doesn't seem to the empirical evidence to suggest that learning outcomes are actually helped by the idea that people are suited to a particular style.

This said, people do seem to have preferences. It not implausible to suggest that preferences tie with motivation with should result in differences in outcomes. It does seem however that it varies a great deal according to the subject matter in question.

Perhaps it is not the individuals that have learning styles or even preferences, but rather topics. I don't know whether any research has been done on this, but it certainly would seem to be a fruitful avenue to take...

(The reading by Drysdale, M. T. B., Ross, J. L., & Schulz, R. A. (2001). Cognitive learning styles and academic performance in 19 first-year university courses: Successful students versus students at risk. Journal of education for students placed at risk, 6(3), 271–289. actually presents a disciplinary-based approach.. Noted by Amelia)

I would have to agree that all these techniques are useful for me as a learner, but I would tend more towards visual and tactile/concrete over auditory techniques. Also I think that individual v. group study for me depends on the topic and the context (I've been hearing a lot about awful documentaries about torture/war/disease etc. during lunch at work from my friend Em but there is absolutely no way that I would sit down and watch them myself).

Following on from Lev's comment that 'perhaps it's not individuals who have learning styles or preferences, but rather topics', I would suggest that the topic definitely does have an impact on the type of techniques that a teacher uses and which would be most appropriate for learning in specific areas. For example, everyone who learns to drive a car uses tactile/concrete learning (even if they learned the concepts and rules through visual or auditory techniques first).

As I was reading the Drysdale, Ross and Schulz (2001) article I was trying to figure out which category I fell into, but I had trouble choosing which of the four most applied to me. I concluded that I leaned more towards concrete than abstract, and more towards sequential than random, but I still had elements of all four categories, although the abstract random category sounded the least like me. I would be very interested in taking the article to work and seeing how my coworkers assess themselves and then how we would assess each other.

Drysdale, M.T., Ross J.L., & Schulz, R.A. (2001). Cognitive learning styles and academic performance in 19 first-year university courses: Successful students versus students at risk. Journal of education for students placed at risk, 6 (3), 271-289.

(A detailed response from Julie)

I was able to attend last week’s lecture and found the discussions around the ideas of learning styles to be very interesting. While I can’t say that I had a strong stance for or against the idea of learning styles I certainly have had some exposure to the different approaches (VAK, Kolb’s Experiential Learning model, Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles to name a few).

I come from an organisation where while I won’t say a big commitment is made to learning styles it certainly something that has been considered in our learning environment. Certainly was never something where I decided it would be the root of which I would base my approach to learning but neither was it an area that I felt strongly against.

It was with interest that I considered not only Gregg’s approach but also other critiques.

Lynn Curry’s critique was a particularly interesting read. I loved the linkage to the parable of the blind men and the elephant and had to also giggle that the article was complete with illustrations. (If you don’t know the tale it the one where a group of blind men are ask to touch only certain parts of an elephant and then explain what an elephant is and of course give wildly different answers based solely on their experience of the small area they felt i.e. the tusk vs. the trunk vs. the tail etc ). Curry gives quite a scathing critique outlining not only the variety of learning style claims (what she calls “the bewildering array of learning style conceptualisations”) but also the lack of critical research, weakness in reliability and validity of measurements.

Although there is a lack of empirical evidence and the reading’s certainly do give a critical look at learning styles I agree more with the stance of Bain in that what it s actually about is offering diversity in learning experiences.

As I stated in my response to Rosyln’s STP this week - it’s not about just blindly accepting that someone may prefer visual learning and therefore only offering them visual options but more about simply acknowledging the huge range of diversity in the way people preferences to learn and take in information and ensuring that we do consider a range of different methods, approaches and strategies to reach as many people as you can. In doing this you are also challenging individuals to expand their learning capabilities as well.

I found the argument that if you are believer in learning styles then you would be creating an individual learning plan for each student to be a bit extremist view and not the way I had ever considered applying learning styles. (Although yes I can understand why one could argue this way).

My experiences has shown that there does appear to be ways that some students appear to be able to more easily able to engage with the learning (I won’t even say prefer to learn but perhaps more accurately it’s about engagement). To me this is what considerations about learning styles has given. If you consider a variety and diversity of approaches, that are still targeting the actual learning required and not just for the sake of novelty or with the sole aim of meeting an individual’s learning style then it can help to enhance learning.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Bain, K. (2004). How do they conduct class. In What the Best College Teachers Do (pp. 98–134). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curry, L. (1990). A critique of the research on learning styles. Educational leadership, 48(2), 50-56.


The reading by Ford and Nichols (1992) discusses the taxonomy of human goals in terms of broader application on human functioning and development.

The authors state, 'many of the controversies in the literature on moral behavior and development might be resolved if morality was clearly defined and studied in goal-related terms (eg in terms of different kinds of integrative terms)' (p 305).

Although not directly relevant to the area of teaching adults, at a personal level this statement jumped out at me and opened a pandora's box of thought processes and critical reflection.

Comments are invited on your personal reflections of Ford and Nichols statement above.


Ford, M. E., & Nichols, C. (1992). A taxonomy of human goals and some possible applications. In M. E. Ford & D. H. Ford (Eds.), Humans as self-constructing living systems (pp.289-311). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eerlbaum Associates


That would run quite contrary to contemporary research moral philosophy which has slowly developed and differentiated between universal moral principles and utilitarian situational ethics.

For example, classic contemporary studies by Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, James Rest, Elliot Turie and others who were interested in moral development, but not in terms of the goals in behaviour, but the rational justifications for the actions.

In all honesty, there does not seem to be much to be gained from engaging in a taxonomy of goal motivations in terms of determining the rightness of intent or the ethical efficiency of actions.

[follow up inevitable discussion in moral principles]

Unfortunately there is a tendency for people to use "morality" as a means to beat up on people with a basis towards moral absolutism.

The less well-known alternative is universalistic approach to morality, which concentrates on the procedure, rather than the content of activity. e.g., the content of the activity doesn't matter - the issue of informed intersubjective consent among participants does.

Whilst many modern liberal secular people intuitively approve of this sort of morality, it does include some challenging edge cases, such as the matter of the "consensual cannibalism" between Armin Meiwes (the eater) and Bernd Jürgen Brandes (the consumed).

On topic to the thread, I'm not sure whether this activity consists of an Affective Goal (Bodily Sensation) or a Social Relationship Goal (Self-Determination or even Integration - in the most literal sense). Either way, the Goal theory doesn't seem to contribute in any way whatsoever of whether the activity could be described as right or wrong, no matter what moral principles one operates from.

(Good remark by Sonia)

Hi Lev, yes, I totally agree Goal theory doesn't really add much. My thought on finishing the article was basically, 'Congratulations, you made a list. Now what?' It's not like it's peculiarly insightful or revelatory.

I do find the concept of intersubjective consent kind of endlessly fascinating, particularly in the context of bodily autonomy. I'd classify that 'vore case as ultimately a Social Relationship/Self Determination Goal, but really it's just as well explained by any number of other social theories with more utility.

I must admit I've followed the Darwin Awards for more than twenty years; unfortunately I was put off by the lack of due care in ensuring the veracity of the stories. Although not related to actual removal or people from the gene pool (but often certainly often related to physics) one may also look up the thoroughly verified, and yea, even academically published, Ig Nobel Awards (and the predecessor, the Annals of Improbable Research, and also The Bonkers Institute).

Getting back on topic, in another forum (where I did my MBA) I was asked what could be done to make teaching such subjects more interesting, when the question of motivation was raised. Given that the answers I gave in that forum were certainly in the spirit of the STP, I'll take the opportunity to repost it here.

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How To Teach An MBA (or any other higher education course for adults)

The relationship between motivation and learning outcomes is quite a strong one, although there is some empirical difficulties. For example, whilst intelligence is considered to be one of the strongest predictor of outcomes, people with high intelligence also tend to be highly motivated [1].

Nevertheless, there are a number of empirical tests that have been conducted, based around content, reward, and environmental changes, which show that it is quite possible to encourage (or retard) involvement and motivation, of which I'll mention just a couple.

The first is that adult learners are more prone to increasing intrinsic motivations, rather than extrinsic ones. Extrinsic motivations include fear of punishment, loss or gain of social status and/or wealth, whereas intrinsic motivations include self-identity or value for its own sake. There is good empirical research that supports this development [2].

So now we know what motivated adult learners; the next step is how. There are some good practical strategies - again backed by empirical research - which have been documented [3], which I'll address just as dot points.

* Knowledge is retained when embedded in an conceptual organising structure. Knowledge of facts is handy, but understanding is much better as it allows the learner to elaborate their knowledge into new constructions.

* Ensure that the students are learning new material that builds on what they already know. Good instruction will elicit prior knowledge; it builds confidence, it provides an opportunity to explain congruence and misfits for what will be learned. Encourage learners to ask their questions and present their problems using the conceptual frameworks taught to test validity. Take the role of an active peer in the learning process.

* Ensure that the material is contextually relevant, attainable, is frequently tested, with plenty of explanatory feedback. Select material that can be actually used by the learners in their life, or at least approximates it. Selecting several small items of assessable material is much better than one large one. Positive feedback encourages and satisfies. Negative feedback discourage and threats will be treated with utter contempt with adult learners. Don't say "You are wrong", rather, show what is right.

* Cooperative and collaborative learning works surprisingly well; students tend to avoid in activities that may result in failure and a collaborative environment allows for the opportunity to engage in both immediate feedback to their ideas, integrate themselves into a community of practise (much better than competency testing for learning outcomes), and engage in a division of labour.

* Allow for a component of self-assessment and autonomous learning and evaluation. Put the adult learner in a situation (e.g., a laboratory) where they are able to test their own knowledge independently, discovering and evaluating for themselves the level of know-how that they've achieved. Do not fear the possibility that adult learners will "cheat" in this context, awarding themselves high marks.


[1] e.g., Rohde, T.E., Thompson L.A. (2007). Predicting academic achievement with cognitive ability. Intelligence. Volume 35, Issue 1, January-February 2007, Pages 83-92 and Schmidt, F.L., Hunter, J.E. (1998). "The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings". Psychological Bulletin 124 (2): 262-74.

[2] Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (Eds.), (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press andSheldon, K. M. (2009). Changes in goal-striving across the life span: Do people learn to select more self-concordant goals as they age?. In M. C. Smith (Ed.), Handbook of research on adult learning and development (pp. 553–569). New York: Routledge.

[3] Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Boston: Anker an Montague W.E., and Knirk, F.G. (1993), What works in adult instruction: The management, design, and delivery of instruction. International journal of educational research, 19(4).
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URL References for the Awards and Institute

The Ig Nobel Awards

The Bonkers Institute


In facilitating an effective learning environment, the educator must be flexible enough to adapt their teaching to that of the learner's world representations. They also must consider their own learning as academics as well as their students' learning.

What I feel is an improtant point made in Bain, K. (2004). How do they conduct class. In What the Best College Teachers Do (pp.98-134). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. is that the theory of good teaching practice has created rigid positions regarding a simple truth of what makes a good lecture. This factor stems from divisions of two sides of the fence in which one side is devoted to the scholarly past of Socrates like pedagogy, while the other side is convinced that lectures don't work at all, and that research has proven this to be fact e.g. 'ha, we have the results'.

So, this is very important to consider (1st) some underlying principles underpin the learning environment that we as educators facilitate. (2nd) there exists a few techniques to enable that these principles are applied.

The next question is big, but, this is good professional practice to think about this. There is no right or wrong.

In creating a natural critical learning environment what are some underpinning principles you can think of in constructing problems, guidance in the classroom, engaging students in higher order intellectual activity, helping to engage their ability to answer questions and leave the students with more questions so as to take the initiative for their own learning?


Whilst the Bain article quite positive in its content (the emphasis on a natural learning environment, ensuring attention, focus on the students, etc), there was something that was something 'not quite right' about it - and it just wasn't the verbose "wise old owl" storytelling style.

Where are the references?

Whilst the main "underlying principles" being expressed were broadly agreeable, there was nothing really backing them up, except for the author's own narrative. As a book from Harvard University Press, this was a little surprising as it is imagined they would be a little more cautious that to allow the possibility of confirmation bias.

I recognise this is a little of an aside to your main point Simpson, and I do apologise in advance. It was just something that was bugging me enormously.

(Simpson's response confirms the concern)

When I read the article from Bain, I too felt it was 'not quite right'. It is a reflective piece at best. Practice put in motion. What does make a good learning environment. There wasn't anything really backing up the authors notion upon the emphasis on a natural learning environment, ensuring attention, focus on the students, etc. I am coming from a Psychology and Education aspect, and it does not 'sit right' in my assumption of good solid practice of academic verbatim. Where is the evidence?

(... and Sonia's too)

Hi Simpson, I agree Bain's article was lacking in an evidence-base. If we look at in terms of the framework used in Grow (1991) it seems to be advocating a motivating/facilitating style of teaching, rather than the sort of self-directed, self-motivated learning that I think is preferable in adult learning.

Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125-149.

The goal of human directedness cannot be ignored. A theme I interpret from Ford & Nichols (1992) is that there exist a need to have some kind of specification of goals to determine what is functional or dysfunctional. Furthermore, how can goals be evaluated for possible positive or negative consequences.

So, here are three questions based upon the reading by Ford, M. E., & Nichols, C. (1992). A taxonomy of human goals and some possible applications. In M. E. Ford & D. H. Ford (Eds.), Humans as self-constructing living systems (pp.289-311). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eerlbaum Associates.

Why is a taxonomy of human goals necessary?

What are some of the problems encountered in creating a taxonomy of human goals?

Why is it important to have a taxonomy of specific goals?


A taxonomy of human goals assists in the understanding of motivation, and behavioural understanding. Ford and Nichols, for example, provide several examples of potential uses of their taxonomy including inquiries into "complex, multifaceted phenomena" that have multiple motivations (e.g., revenge), the potential use in psychiatry and counselling, marketing, and personal understanding.

There is numerous potential problems in developing taxonomies of motivations, but they can be narrowed down to a few broad issues. The first is the possibility of a lack of structure and dependencies resulting in an increasing long list of activities people carry out. The second is when a structure and dependencies are developed and they don't actually match reality (e.g., Maslow's hierarchy of needs). The third issue is the complexity that arises when activities cross over the assigned taxonomic categories.

Many of these issues do remind me, of course, of the problems inherent in all taxonomies that have existed for thousands of years, Aristotle's "Categories" (2007) being an early example. Ford and Nicols, to their credit, have worked to developed theirs in a manner that has a degree of strength (e.g., functional, outcome-orientated, precise, distinctive, inclusive etc), with several years of iterative development.

(Off-topic, a reference like Aristotle (2007) is one reason why I particularly dislike the APA referencing...)

Additional References

Aristotle, Edghill, E. M. (trans.) (2007), Categories, The University of Adelaide.


That is the conclusion of Beth Rogowsky, assistant professor of education at Bloomsburg University, based on research conducted with two colleagues and recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology’s “Online First.”

Rogowsky said 94 percent of educators believe students at all levels perform better when they receive information in their preferred learning style — auditory, visual or tactile — and offer classroom instruction following this theory. However, she added, there is no research to support this nearly universal practice.