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MSPnet Blog: “Learning styles, again”

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posted April 17, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Audrey Watters, in her “weekly news,” tracks ed research and “research.” Her news post for April 13 links to an article in the Atlantic which reports  recent research  on “learning styles.” This piece is in no sense a systematic review article, as it reports principally on research that casts some shade on the concept (the title of one article on learning styles and study strategies in college anatomy students begins “Another nail in the coffin?” ).  Nevertheless, I recommend the Atlantic piece and the embedded links.  I think it provides a cautionary tale — if one more were needed — about the temptation to seize on interesting ideas, and turn them into educational dogma (in this case, held by students, teachers, educational designers, publishers, parents, and many others).

I encountered “learning styles” as an educational idea early on in my science ed career, in conversations with science teachers about why they taught the way they taught.  Some had learned some notions about learning styles during their teacher training;  some had just picked it up from colleagues or other sources.

It’s one of those ideas (sometimes labelled “neuromyths“) that has intuitive appeal for someone immersed in the complex particularities of the classroom or similar settings (they are not just a phenomenon in education.  Whether they are seen merely  heuristics — helpful rules of thumb to assist decision making — or as established findings of cognitive science, such ideas play a valuable role in imposing some manageable order on what often feels like chaos.  It’s no wonder that one study found that more than 90% of teachers from Europe to China subscribe to at least this version of the theory (see here for another study reaching the same conclusion):

Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic)

“Learning styles”  theory provides two benefits in this connection.  First, it provides initial hypotheses about why some kids are learning some material only with a real struggle.  Second, it provides some ideas for actions the teacher can take to make things better.   Moreover, since this  theory suggests that all people have such learning styles, a teacher may use the theory to reflect on their own preferred “teaching style,” in terms of visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic modes.

The problem is, there is little evidence that, if you can identify the child’s  preferred learning style (a challenge in itself), and if you address it with appropriate methods for presenting information (or eliciting it from the child), the result will be “better learning,” or other kinds of success.

Rogowsky et al. (2015) did a study of students in a college history class, comparing visual with verbal learners — taking into account the students’ self-perceptions of their learning styles, but also using a standard screening technique to sort students into the two learning styles. Their study found that personal learning style did not correlate well with actual aptitude (ability to learn with either style).  Moreover, learning with a preferred learning style did not result in improved learning outcomes.   This sort of result has been borne out in many other instances.  (See here for a study comparing print book vs. ebook learning, in which there are interesting variations even within one “mode” of learning, the verbal or reading/writing — and in many contexts print serves many students better.)

An interesting,  nuance, however, is introduced by a paper like “Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information,”  (only the abstract is accessible, here).  The authors find no difference in performance between students learning through preferred mode and those that don’t — but the students’ “judgement of learning” is that they learn better in one mode than the other.

So here, the suggestion is that you may feel more comfortable about your learning if it’s in a preferred mode.  Of course this is not a negligible benefit, but it needs to be distinguished from other marks of actual learning, such as ability to recall the material, or bring it into use.   Indeed, one can argue, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has on many occasions (see here for his resource page on learning styles), that it might be better for the learner to help them gain capacity using learning styles they are not comfortable with.

Willingham addresses comments from teachers who have used learning styles in their teaching, and believe it’s helped:

When I talk to teachers about this, I often get a question of this sort from a teacher who is clearly a little offended and/or a little angry. The teacher seems to take my point to imply that a teacher whose practice is informed by a learning styles theory must not be doing a good job.   It’s important to be clear that learning styles is not a theory of instruction. It is a theory of how the mind works. So when I say “there’s no evidence for learning styles” I am making a claim about the mind, not about instruction.

Kids are richly complicated.  Teachers are richly complicated.  Put them together in groups, working on interesting and perhaps challenging material, and the number of processes at work that result in some learning explodes.   As Willingham writes,

Lots of stuff aside from learning styles goes into the practice of teachers who ask me this question: their knowledge of kids, their emotional sensitivity, their knowledge of the content, their knowledge of pedagogy, etc.

I close by noting that even Neil Fleming, the educator who originated the V-A-R-K model of learning styles (and developed the VARK inventory for “diagnosing” learning styles), regrets the ways that the learning styles notion has been reified, and (may I say) commercialized and mythologized, even while maintaining its value.

VARK above all is designed to be a starting place for a conversation among teachers and learners about learning….I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants. It is a beginning of a dialogue, not a measure of personality. It should be used strictly for learning, not for recreation or leisure.

Some also confuse preferences with ability or strengths. You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it or any point between. VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.