Do Learning Styles Matter?

There’s been a lot written about learning styles. More than 650 books published in the United States and Canada alone. Do a Google search on “learning styles” and you get over 2,000,000 results. Most people know if they’re a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, and instructors often try to design their courses to accommodate the different learning styles so as to ensure that each student’s strongest modality is represented in some fashion.

And yet, not only is it difficult and time-consuming to accurately identify and address the individual learning styles of an entire class, but there’s now a question of whether it’s really necessary.

In the recent online seminar Learning Styles: Fact and Folklore for eLearning, Les Howles, a senior e-learning consultant at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and Allan Jeong, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University, talked about the many misconceptions regarding learning styles. The two concluded that “based on several decades of empirical evidence, matching learning activities/strategies with specific learning styles does not often result in improved learning.”

That’s not to say that students don’t have different learning styles, preferences or traits, but when designing the components of an e-learning course, it’s more important to select a modality that is most suitable for the content and supports the learning goals, Howles says. Most students are multimodal and are able to learn in a variety of formats.

Active vs. Reflective Learners

While downplaying some of the intuitive appeal of learning styles, one area where Jeong has seen marked differences is in how active and reflective learners engage in online discussions. In analyzing message exchanges, he found that reflective learners produced significantly more responses than exchanges between active learners.

By requiring students to post a designated number of messages and to do so using one of four message tags, Jeong is able to use discussion boards in a way that plays to the strengths and preferences of both active and reflective learners. The tags also make it easy for instructors to assess discussion board participation and performance. The four post tags are:

  1. ARG – a message that presents an argument.
  2. EXPL – a reply/message that explains, supports or clarifies an argument.
  3. BUT – a reply/message that questions or challenges a previous argument or challenge.
  4. EVID – a reply/message that provides evidence to establish the validity of an argument or challenge.

Advice for Online Course Designers

Howles and Jeong offered the following advice for instructional designers:

  • Focus most on good instructional message design.
  • Select instructional methods and modalities appropriate for the content.
  • Focus on developing schemas not just communicating content.
  • Focus on what students do in the learning task.
  • Don’t discard learning styles entirely, but also focus on a variety of other individual learner differences such as prior knowledge and motivation.
  • Read learning styles research (abstracts).