Monday, December 21, 2009

Tailoring to student learning styles: Don't bother?

The CHE reports on a recent study concluding that while differences in learning styles (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.) exist, it is unwise for instructors to 'match' their teaching techniques to their students' learning styles:

no one has ever proved that any particular style of instruction simultaneously helps students who have one learning style while also harming students who have a different learning style.
The experimenters taught the same material (in this case, a lesson on molecular structure) to students using a given learning style (kinesthetic) for one group and a second style (verbal) for another. The 'matching' claim predicts that students with a given style will learn the material best with their favored style, but the researchers found that one learning style worked best for both groups, even though students tended to enjoy learning in their own favored style.

I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the methodological and disciplinary questions raised by the study. (From the article, there's clearly a lot of controversy about it.) But I can say that I think this is a welcome finding from my own admittedly limited pedagogical perspective. Varying your techniques to help students with different learning styles is now standard advice for college teachers. But I've always instinctually recoiled from taking this too much to heart.

First, not all content is easily presentable according to the various learning styles. Sure, Venn diagrams are nice for logic. There are of course some famous visual metaphors in philosophy — Plato's cave, Hume's billiard balls, the ship of Theseus. I once had a blast putting students in groups and asking them to draw pictures that explain and contrast Spinoza's metaphysics with Lebniz's. (And I've occasionally had students get out of their chairs and place themselves along a continuum to indicate their position on some question.) But philosophy is a highly verbal discipline for a reason. Making logical distinctions, keeping track of the give-and-take surrounding an argument, etc., are things most readily and naturally done in language. So while I'm not opposed to working in different learning styles into the classroom, I don't think instructors should go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate these styles.

Second, this underscores the point that disciplines are what they are. Philosophy is what it is. Part of our responsibility as instructors is to foster the skills — the 'styles,' if you will — conducive to mastering our disciplinary content. Philosophers teach philosophy, yes, but we also implicitly teach reading, writing, and reasoning (among other capacities). And the soundest response to the diversity of student learning styles is not to fit the content to the styles, but to expand the range of styles through which students can learn effectively. This is a bit snarky, but our response to students having difficulty with math is not to try teach them science in a math-free way. Nor do PE teachers try to improve the fitness of students with verbal learning styles by having them read books about exercise.

Lastly, even if it were a good idea to have students master material according to their preferred styles, it's not obvious that this tailoring or matching is the instructor's responsibility. For one thing, presenting material in multiple styles is time-consuming, and at least in my classroom, time is a very precious commodity. But on top of that, students who are aware of their own learning styles can be encouraged to figure out how to adapt the material to their own learning styles. Consider: I teach in English. This is a second or complementary language for many of my students. Doubtless many of them study or discuss the material outside the classroom in languages with which they are more comfortable. And so they should. I'm not so finicky to suggest that they must master the material through English (even though they'll have to ultimately demonstrate their master in English). In doing this, they are adapting the material to their own knowledge or learning style, so to speak. But the same applies to students with diverse learning styles.

So in classic debate format: Agree or disagree:
Philosophy instructors should not go to significant lengths to accommodate student 'learning styles'.



  1. I strongly agree. While much research has been done to try to establish these styles, similar research has not been done to establish professor's "teaching / learning" styles. I'm not at all sure why I should teach in a way that is opposite of my own natural inclinations. Sure, I should avoid things that form blocks for students -- but, learning styles are simply that -- styles or preferences.

    It also seems that your remarks on discipline tendencies to appeal to one "style" over another are on target. Perhaps learning styles will tend to make divisions among students, and the students who learn in ways most conducive to philosophy will major in philosophy -- while students with other styles will go elsewhere. I don't see anything wrong with that.

    Finally, a large part of college is learning to make connections with people different from yourself. Adjusting to instructors whose teaching style does not line up with your own learning style is part of the process. I doubt that when our students go to grad or professional school their instructors will be developing little games to accommodate all learning styles. I also doubt that their first bosses will say "oh, sweetie, you're a kinesthetic learner, so you don't have to read that handbook -- we'll let you do an interpretive dance instead."

    I think it's good to vary teaching methods within reason -- but, the justification isn't to satisfy a variety of learning styles, rather it's because particular portions of any course may be communicated more effectively in lecture, discussions, projects etc.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree but with the caveat that we should be aware of how learning actually happens and what methods are actually conducive to students' learning. I wouldn't want this research to be interpreted as students just need to work harder to adapt to our preferences in teaching.

    I don't know that there's any particular learning preference that makes someone necessarily better at philosophy but I think that, as it stands, most philosophy does require that students be good readers and if they aren't, they aren't going to do well in philosophy or, perhaps close to the same thing, are going to find it very frustrating. I do think that we can be doing things to help students become better readers that doesn't take a huge amount of effort on our part and has been greeted with gratitude by my students (the one thing I've done is work to find audio versions of texts (when I can) and suggested that they read along).

  3. The points about 'how would you individualize lessons for a mass group' are good.

    But to me, the most important thing is that we know already how to teach much better than we do already, yet solid psychological research goes ignored & unapplied.

    Consider the spaced repetition effect; it goes back literally centuries now in the research literature, yet no educator I have ever met uses it save by accident (to pad out tests).


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