April 30th, 2014

What’s the Story on Learning Styles?


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.

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.

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