We say “pshaw” to learning styles

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 23, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time, but as any faithful readers might have noted, I’ve been a bit in-absentia for the past several months.   I was off busy making some money to support my blogging habit, but I’m happy to report that I’m back, and working on ramping up my addition once again.  So, look forward to more meaty posts from me this summer!

We all learn differently, right?  I might be an auditory learner, so I should receive information mostly through the spoken word.  My classmate is a visual learner, so she needs to see graphs, pictures, and written text.  Well, not so fast.  Though this is a popular idea, it’s been extensively criticized — so much so, that even the Wikipedia article suggests that the idea has questionable merit.

Auditory learners???

First, what are learning styles?  The Kolb Learning Style Inventory is a well-known assessment, which assesses how a learner prefers to learn.  Kolb’s model is based on something called experiential learning theory, which isn’t based on the more familiar auditory/visual/reading/kinesthetic division lines (called the VARK model).  Rather, Kolb’s styles are called Concrete Experience (someone who prefers an experience based approach to learning), Reflective Observation (an observatory, passive, introverted approach), Abstract Conceptualization (an analytic, conceptual, logical learner), and Active Experimentation (active, rather than passive, learning, such as projects and group discussions). Based on the scores on these different dimensions, learners can be grouped into different categorizations, similar to the Myers’ Briggs test (which also rates people on different dimensions and gives them a personality type based on those dimensions).

The problem is, there’s no real evidence that you learn better if a teacher presents information in a way that matches your purported learning style on such a measure. A recent review article (by Harold Pashler et al, including Robert Bjork, a longtime critic of learning styles) makes this case strongly.  From the abstract:

A large number of studies have purported to show that different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”) learn best when taught in their preferred modality; but the majority of such studies have not used the type of randomized research designs (e.g., classify learners into categories, then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods and assess effectiveness of the learning methods with a test given to all participants) that would make their findings credible. What psychological evidence does show is that people are inclined to hold false beliefs about how they learn and that they tend to learn and teach others in nonoptimal ways. Among other things, the report has significant implications for instructional approaches, and underscores the need to ensure that teaching methods are informed by sound scientific research, not fad educational theories or intuition.

This article is summarized very well in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here, along with a plethora of comments).  They find that, although a student might enjoy a lesson more when presented in their preferred learning style, they might actually learn better from a task more suited to the particular content.  For example in a lesson on molecular structure, all learners benefit from using hands-on models, even though a verbal learner would prefer to receive a lecture.

What this means for instructors, Mr. Pashler says, is that they should not waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in their classrooms. (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?)

Instead, teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.

The good thing about learning styles, of course, is that it has opened our eyes to the idea that there are different ways to teach content, and so instructors have moved towards using a wide range of instructional techniques.  That’s a good thing for everyone, regardless of their individual learning style.  Turns out that even Kolb agrees — he never advocated that teachers should match their instruction to students’ learning styles, though he does argue that students should think about their own learning style when choosing their major.  This kind of metacognition, I would argue, can benefit us all.

But where it can be really detrimental is when parents or students say that they didn’t do well in a class because the teacher didn’t match their learning styles (see Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum for a parody of this effect).  Learning styles can be a crutch or an excuse for a student to avoid doing the work necessary to learn.  And because students often report more satisfaction with teaching when a teacher matches their learning style, a student’s belief in learning styles can actually harm their own learning, by pressuring a teacher to change their teaching approach.  Course evaluations can be a powerful force!

On the other hand, a cognitive psychologist (Daniel Willingham) argues here that learning styles don’t even exist.

He argues that learning styles are a moot point.  If we’re better at processing auditory information than visual information, that just means that we’re better at processing through that route (like hearing the tone of a word), not that we’re better at learning that way.  Hearing the sound of a word doesn’t actually help us learn the meaning of that word.

I’ll close with a nice quote from Louis Schmier

There is a Zen saying that in the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.  How true.  It’s not much different on our campuses, is it.  We love to herd students into boxes and slap labels on them out of our own minds, believe them to be true, and then act as if they are true.  [We] have to go beyond the idea of a student to the real student.  And, we can only do that if we teach outside the box and go beyond the labels.

There are some other strong critiques of learning styles, such as  Stahl (1999), who relates the enduring interest in learning styles with our tendency to see the vague statements and predictions of fortune tellers.  You can also see a great review of the topic, with some additional references, over at the Occams Donkey blog.

The take-home message: Don’t bother to try to match your teaching style to your students’ learning styles.  If they complain, cite these studies, and tell them that how we like to get information isn’t necessarily how we learn best.  Instead, the research suggests that all students benefit from receiving information in multiple modes, with a mixture of chalk-and-talk and active learning methods.

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