Monday, March 26, 2012

Getting beyond 'learning styles'

We've had some discussions here at ISW about the apparent dubiousness of student 'learning styles' and the notion that instructors should tailor their teaching to these styles. Cedar Reiner and Daniel Willingham do an excellent job separating the wheat from the chaff on this topic — what we can really learn from studies of the diverse ways students learn and what's suspect. They've persuaded me that the learning styles dogma is not only false, but pernicious.

(A quick aside: I strong recommend Willingham's blog on Science and Education — he knows his stuff, inside and out.)

First, a definition of 'learning styles':

the preferred bodily sense through which one receives information, whether it be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic 
Reiner and Willingham describe the central claim of learning style theory: 
Different students have different modes of learning, and their learning could be improved by matching one's teaching with that preferred learning mode.
They conclude that there is no compelling evidence to suggest that meaningful differences in how students learn correspond to differences in their preferred bodily senses or that learning improves when teaching methods reflect these styles. In other words, the claim that "learners have preferences about how to learn that are independent of both ability and content and have meaningful implications for their learning" is false. The preferences students exhibit don't correlate with learning:
 when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not. A favorite mode of presentation (e.g., visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) often reveals itself to be instead a preference for tasks for which one has high ability and at which one feels successful.
Reiner and Willingham note that the learning styles meme has taken ahold among educators and students because it ratifies a kind of educational egalitarianism in which every student has strengths that nevertheless may go unrecognized if we overlook diversity of putative learning styles. But as they note, to deny the significance of learning styles is not to deny the diversity of students. It simply isn't true that "if you think that the theory is wrong, you must think that all students are identical." And this in turn generates one of the pernicious effects of the learning styles meme: It leads us to neglect differences among students that actually do contribute differences in learning. Students differ in talent, ability, and intelligence; in their interests or motivations; and in their background knowledge. And some students have specific disabilities that impede various forms of learning. And it would be a disservice to students not to at least be cognizant of these differences when we design our learning environments. As Reiner and Willingham put it,"learners are different from each other, these differences affect their performance, and teachers should take these differences into account. "

Moreover, learning styles has come to exert Dweck effects on learners. Once persuaded of their own supposed learning style, students guide their learning choices and behavior in light of that style:
 if a student believes she is a visual learner and therefore disengages and daydreams when a lecturer turns off the PowerPoint and tells a story, this will prevent her from learning the concept through a compelling narrative. And while these beliefs may not have as direct an impact on performance reviews as they do in K-12 settings, a belief in learning styles occasionally shows up in student evaluations of teaching: “I am a visual learner, so the visual examples were good,” or “I am an auditory learner, so more auditory content would have helped.”
And if, as I have argued before, disciplines tend to come with certain learning styles built in (philosophy requires strong verbal skills, dance strong kinesthetic skills, etc.), students who see a mismatch between their preferred style and a discipline will end doing themselves a disservice. Rather than adapting to the disciplinary content and trying to develop the skills the discipline rewards, the student will decide (in a way that reflects Dweck's fixed intelligence mindset) that she simply cannot learn the discipline — a self-fulfilling prophecy for sure.

I'm a fairly strong advocate of educational science and theory (and its application to the practice of teaching). While one might infer that the rise to prominence of learning styles theory speaks badly of that endeavor, I prefer to see the findings articulated by Reiner and Willingham as testimony to the maturity of this science, i.e., its power to self-correct and identify erroneous ideas.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Learning Styles", while still apparently in use as a theoretical label in some impoverished academic circles, is an outdated oversimplification that reduces learners to one "predominant"or preferred symbolic language.

    I recommend not only reading but PERSONALLY WORKING WITH the material in Dawna Markova, PhD's "The Open Mind" to encounter the reality of how people learn variously: we are all visual learners, we are all auditory learners, and we are all kinesthetic learners... I hope you will pursue this and discover the meaty, and extremely useful applications of the current/matured models that grew out of old "Learning Styles" theory.

    Heron Saline

  3. Thanks so much for the kind words, and the cogent summary. I also had a bit of a dialogue with a K-12 teacher who pushed back on the debunking. In that post, I also expand on the role of basic cognitive science in the classroom.

  4. I admire Socrates and his words. Well, there are many learning styles that anyone can apply and any one can digest to himself to make use of it but what mostly matters is when people do know the essence of learning and development, as well as they know how to use such in the right way.

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