April 30, 2014

What’s the Story on Learning Styles?

By: in Learning Styles, Teaching Professor Blog

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We have this tendency in higher education to throw babies out with bath water. It derives from dualistic thinking. Either something is right or wrong, it’s in or out, up or down. As mature thinkers, we disavow these dichotomous perspectives, but then find their simplicity hard to resist. They make complicated things easy.

Case in point: learning styles. Since they first arrived with their proposition that students take distinctly different approaches to learning and whose “styles” can be detected with easily administered instruments, they have generated great interest. Learning styles appear to explain something we’ve experienced as teachers and learners in terms of the different ways people learn. Learning style instruments proliferated, supported by a large research enterprise. One review references 63 different instruments.

Then several years ago, we started seeing articles that challenged the validity of learning styles (see Pashler, et.al for an example). The Pashler et.al literature review did not find empirically valid evidence connecting learning styles with instructional methods and better learning outcomes for students with that style when compared to students with other styles. And so, challenged empirically and questioned in several widely referenced articles, learning styles are now out.

Any number of us have had our doubts about learning styles. The instruments that detect, name, and classify these various approaches to learning just seemed too straightforward. How can there by only two or even four styles? And how can every learner fit neatly into one of those boxes? We also worried about how students responded to them. “I’m a visual learner,” one told me, “I don’t do textbooks.” A certain learning style then excuses one from other learning modalities?

However, what’s left standing is one unarguable fact: People do not all learn in the same way. Some of us always read the instructions first and others of us just start putting it together. Richard Felder, widely known for his work in engineering education and a teaching and learning scholar I hold in the highest esteem, shared “Are Learning Styles Invalid? (Hint: No),” a piece that carves a space between the extreme positions on learning styles.

He begins with a definition. “A learning style model specifies a small number of dimensions that collectively provide a good basis for designing effective instruction.” In other words, a designated learning style is not a complete portrait of a learner, but something closer to an outline with main points and few supporting details. He continues: “They are neither infallible guides to student behavior nor made-up constructs with no basis in reality but simply useful descriptions of common behavior patterns.”

“Learning styles are not mutually exclusive categories but preferences that may be mild, moderate or strong.” This explains the wide variation among learners with the same learning styles. In fact, there’s not two, four, or six learning styles, but numberless individual variations when prior knowledge, experience, and skill level are factored into the learning style equation.

Can a teacher design instruction that addresses all these individual differences? Of course not. “The point is not to match teaching style to learning styles but rather to achieve balance, making sure that each style preference is addressed to a reasonable extent during instruction.” The most powerful message of the learning styles movement is that content must be delivered in different ways. Moreover, variation in instructional methods develops a broad range of learning skills. “… learning styles provide no indication of what the students are and are not capable of, nor are they legitimate excuses for poor academic performance.” Students may have a learning preference, but that is not the only way they can learn, nor should it be the only way they are taught.

There’s one last enduring message to be taken from the debate about learning styles. Addressing the learning needs of students is way more complicated than most of us assumed. “The ideal balance among learning style categories depends on the subject, level, and learning objectives of the course and the backgrounds and skills of students.” That’s a problem we should be working to solve but without expecting one “right” answer.

References:
Felder’s piece can be found on his website, which offers a treasure trove of excellent materials on teaching and learning.

Pashler, H., et. al. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105-119.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments

InstrucDesigner | April 30, 2014

Thank you for post this entry. I hope ever faculty member I've even met reads it and take it to heart.

Steve Froikin | April 30, 2014

Thanks for the discussion. I've heard the debate and, in my experience, both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Here's how I see it. Learning style is not just a variable connected to a learner. It is a variable connected to learning content. For example, no one is going to learn how to dance from reading a description of dancing. You just have to get up and practice it! People are not going to learn how to write through auditory channels. And so on. As a designer, you have to consider whether the learning style matches the content first. Then consider what differences might come up for individual learners. It may be that multiple channels will work better than a single one.

InstrucDesigner | April 30, 2014

It seems like you might be confusing learning styles and instructional strategies.

Gelene Thompson | April 30, 2014

I agree, Steve. So much of what students need to learn is about "how" to do things intermixed with "knowledge" about what they are learning to do. We need to use more than one method of instruction for most topics. That's one of the things I enjoy most about teaching – the variety and creativity needed to really help students learn also keeps the topic fresh for the instructor at the same time.

@BillyStrean | April 30, 2014

This is an important topic (I'm biased as I have a paper in review that explores the topic thoroughly). Although this is a fair-minded portrayal, my sense is that "learning styles" have done far more harm than good. Absolutely it is important to recognize that not everyone learns the same way. Yes it is great if something gets teachers to teach in a variety of ways. Yet, the vast majority of times people talk about learning styles it is part of self-handicapping (e.g., "I'm a visual learner, so I can only learn in this limited way").

@Patreids | April 30, 2014

One major point I raise when working with faculty on the concepts of learning styles is that we teach in a variety of modes, styles, and approaches NOT just to appeal to all students, but ALSO to support students in strengthening their ability to learn in other ways.

umesh mathur | April 30, 2014

the learning curve cannot be considered as digital, it is surely analogue that adds to the beauty and stability to it. there are ough edges but for smoothing them we professors are required

geoffcain | April 30, 2014

Oh good, instructors can just go back to one-way dumps of information via the lecture method and online classes can go back to being pdf libraries :-)

Neil Haave | April 30, 2014

I think Billy's comment above and the comment in Maryellen's article are so true – students (& instructors?) use learning styles as an excuse to not avail themselves of the different resources and modalities available for learning. I encountered the same example last year when a student informed me that she could not do the homework (the reading assignment) because she was not a visual learner. I helped her figure out a way to attend to the issue and in the process she improved another one of her learning strategies. And I guess this is the take home message of this blog entry – students, learners, may have prefered modes of learning, but this does not mean that we cannot learn or improve other learning approaches.

I think the most important contribution to teaching and learning that consideration of learning styles has provided is the impetus for teachers to not teach using only one educational strategy and to consider weaving active learning activities into class meetings so that it is no longer only lecturing.

@furchner | April 30, 2014

Thank you for writing this! The belief that students can only learn in one way still seems to be pretty entrenched in the educational establishment. When I taught an academic skills course a few years ago, part of the curriculum included having students discover "their" learning styles. I rebelled, and instead I had them learn different materials using different styles, emphasizing that THEIR toolkit would be much larger and more flexible if they practiced and experimented with learning using several channels for input. After all, when they enter the world of work, telling the following to one's boss probably won't fly (unless they have a documented hearing disability): "I'm sorry, but I'm a visual learner. If you only talk when you tell to me how to do something, I just can't possibly absorb it that way. Please write it down. With pictures." Students will have a greater chance of success if they develop multiple ways of absorbing and understanding information.

Neil Haave | April 30, 2014

Exactly!

Jenny Franklin | May 1, 2014

THANKS FOR THIS THOUGHTFUL PIECE, MARYELLEN! My experience is it a lot easier to explore the topic if we "deconstruct" a term that is so often confounded with this concept: individual differences that most likely make a difference in learning outcomes with differing instructional approaches." IF we can get the idea of "styles" in a useful perspective as only one dimension of difference, we can more readily talk about what research tells us about put some very important differences such as aspects of personality vs cognitive styles vs preferences for modes of presentation. That's a pretty crude slice compared to the many kinds of differences with instructional implications, but it would be a good start for the sake of accuracy, clarity and maybe even a zone of proximal development approach for folks who are researchers in fields outside of education as well as teachers. The research when parsed with a more diferentuated way of describing learners is fascinating AND useful.

Laura S | May 1, 2014

I think the point of the article is that it all works together: "The most powerful message of the learning styles movement is that content must be delivered in different ways. Moreover, variation in instructional methods develops a broad range of learning skills. "

Stewart | May 4, 2014

Take an invalid instrument to measure a student's approach to learning (is there a single styles inventory with acceptable reliability or even face validity?), add a failure to find evidence for the successful matching of modality styles to teaching strategies to produce higher levels of achievement, and what do you have? According to many, it’s a means of understanding differences and teaching to an individual's strengths. But this is not a safe, middle ground functional hypothesis. Rather, it is an example of the "anything in moderation must be true" bias. Just as a moderate amount of Reiki will fail to cure a medical condition, a moderate conclusion about the usefulness of the modality learning styles concept does not help us understand the learning process. Does a more thoughtful and considered reaction to this notion mean that the answer lies in the middle, should be completely accepted or thoroughly dismissed? The modality learning styles hypothesis sounds as if it reflects a valid characterization of learners — just ask people if they are visual learners and around 90% of them will confirm that they are — but the evidence is overwhelmingly. We cannot reliably identify modality styles, teaching has not been successfully matched to proposed styles and the learning task itself should be the focus of analysis. If that's an extreme and uncomfortable conclusion, at least it is evidence-based

cognitioneducation | May 8, 2014

Additional considerations that should be included in LS discussions, but often aren't are these:

1. "Mixing it up" in the classroom "works," but why? There are at least three possible answers, but only one is often considered. The LS answer is something to the effect of "because that way all kinds of learners have a chance to enter in in their own way. An alternative explanation though is that mixing it up refreshes students' attention. And a third alternative is that mixing it up provides all students with a richer array of cues to store and later retrieve. The former answer violates the principle of parsimony. The latter two reasons fit within the current cognitive psych paradigm and can be tested, but often are not.

2. As noted above, following the LS "position" on learning gives students an "easy" source of externalization and encourages a fixed mindset. Whether we know the truth about learning styles or not is irrelevant to the point that learners with a fixed mindset are at a disadvantage, and learning mindsets are shaped by learning environments.

3. Whereas educators do indeed know that individual variation exists in learning – of course it does! – what isn't aptly considered in the literature is the source of these differences. The assumption is that learning styles are somehow coded into our genetics (i.e., we are born that way) but there is no evidence (none that I know of anyway) to support this claim. As with point #2, it's just as reasonable to assume that LS are shaped by the environment too, just like mindsets. In other words, it's an open empirical question and one that deserves attention if the LS perspective is to continue to cost school districts so much time, energy, and money. There's quite a cost associated with this concept and the validity of it is far from settled.

With so much interesting work going on in the Cognitive and Learning Sciences that is shedding light on how to enhance learning, I often wonder why Learning Styles, as a concept, is still around? There are many other ways to enhance learning than rigidly adhering to this one.


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