Mental models of learning in distance education


Correspondence should be addressed to Professor John T. E. Richardson, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK (e-mail:


Background. Interview-based research has shown that students in higher education hold a number of different conceptions of learning and of themselves as learners. There is debate about whether these conceptions constitute a developmental hierarchy.

Aims. This study evaluated the Mental Models section of Vermunt and van Rijswijk's (1988) Inventory of Learning Styles (ILS) as a measure of students' conceptions of learning and sought to identify conceptions of learning as qualitatively different patterns of scores.

Sample. A random sample of 1,000 students who were taking courses by distance learning with the Open University in the UK.

Method. A translated and adapted version of the Mental Models section of the ILS was administered in a postal survey. Complete data were obtained from 441 students and were subjected to principal component analysis, cluster analysis and discriminant analysis.

Results. The five scales in the Mental Models section of the ILS were homogeneous and achieved a satisfactory level of internal consistency, but two of the five scales could not be differentiated from each other in the students' responses. A cluster analysis identified four subgroups of students who had different patterns of scores on two discriminant functions.

Conclusion. The four mental models identified in this study were broadly similar to those identified by Vermunt (1996) in an interview-based study. However, these do not seem to constitute a developmental hierarchy, and, following Vermunt, it is suggested that they are better interpreted as aspects of four over-arching ‘learning styles’ or ‘learning patterns’.