Learning styles (may be) a myth!

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 8, 2007

I used to tell people “I’m a visual learner.” I liked seeing things, and organizing things graphically. But now after a bunch of reading, I’m not so sure.

There’s been a lot of research on learning styles. For example, one rubric classifies people as:

  • Active/Reflective
  • Sensing/Intuitive
  • Visual/Verbal
  • Sequential/Global

You can take this test here. On a 11 point scale, I scored between 1 and 3 on all measures (except sequential, where I scored a 5. I am pretty darned linear and logical). The score sheet tells me that that means that I have a “balanced” approach. I’m not so sure. I just think that means that the way I learn really depends on whether I’m in a classroom, for example, or on a dance floor. In other words, it’s “context dependent.”

While a lot of people ascribe to the idea that different people have different learning styles, there is also a fair amount of critique of the idea. For one, research has found that people’s learning styles aren’t generally very stable — they change over time and depending on the situation. So, that might mean that we’re not measuring what we think we measure with these questions. Here’s one sample question from the test I took:

When I think about what I did yesterday, I am most likely to get
(a) a picture.
(b) words.

You know what, it really depends on what I did yesterday, and what I’m doing right now.

The recommendation for teachers has been to teach in a variety of ways (lecture, group work, talk about applications of the science, give broader context, show detailed linear steps, etc.), and that way they will address a variety of learning styles without having to know the particular learning style of each student. That makes sense, and students will definitely benefit from seeing the material presented in a variety of formats. So, if learning styles are false, are they necessarily harmful if they result in information being presented in multiple ways?

Some may argue “yes,” because it gives students an excuse to tune out certain types of instruction because it “doesn’t fit my learning style.” Yet, there is some research that people actually learn more when they are presented with information in a way other than the one they prefer! I wonder if this is because, if I like pictures and it’s easy for me to understand them, then being presented with text makes me work harder to make that connection and I end up having deeper learning?

So, the learning styles debate is an interesting one. For teachers, I think it’s best to just figure that people need to grapple with information in a variety of ways, and so the more diversity you can provide, the better.

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