University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Which Learning Style Are You?

In The View from the OEP on September 2, 2011 at 10:37 am

The other morning (Monday, August 29), NPR reported an interesting story on something that every K-12 educator has not doubt heard countless times — Learning Styles.  Most educators are told that they must cater to the variety of different learning styles in the classroom to be effective.  Indeed, numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”).

This seems like a bit of a tall order for teachers.  After gaining a solid grasp of the course content and working through difficult issues of classroom management, teachers are also expected to decipher whether each child is a visual learner or tactile learner or aural learner or a reader/writer and the … (deep breath) … figure out how to teach each lesson differently to each child according to his her learning style.

This alone should scare any sane person away from teaching!  Fortunately, all teachers should breathe a sigh of relief after listening to the NPR report on a research review conducted by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning—Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles).  After reviewing the existing literature on learning styles, the authors found that nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles theory fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity.

According to the Press Release by the Association for Psychological Science,

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

This does not suggest teachers should opt for rote or monotonous instruction.  To the contrary, says University of Virginia Professor of Psychology Dan Willingham.  Interviewed by NPR for this report, Willingham claims that variety in terms of instructional presentation (“mixing things up”) is likely to be more effective for all students.

What we really like about this at the OEP is the reference to a systematic review of the evidence … we in the education business should do our best to separate the lore from the evidence, or the fiction from the fact.  The sad truth is that we have VERY LITTLE rigorous evidence about what works in K12 schooling.  As a result, we should be very skeptical when told what the “research says”.  At the same time, teachers and researchers should continue to work together to conduct rigorous research so that we can progress as a field and develop more and better evidence on what actually does help kids learn.

On this question, the psychologists have done a real service by clarifying that, in fact, “the research” does not mandate that teachers find each child’s particular learning style and teach differently.

  1. Thanks for drawing this important information about misinformation to our attention! It is remarkable that, in the education profession, we can so readily accept so many things because we assume that it is backed by “good” research. The idea of learning styles has led us down the path of “differentiated learning/instruction” which of course, has led to a pretty significant upswing in the professional development cottage industry as well as an increase in the number of books published on the subject. Someone is making money off of it! I am reminded of “brain-based” learning that was quite the rage in the 90s and still exists to some extent today (at least there is still a national brain-based learning conference every year).

    If I am understanding professor Willingham, how we make sense of and use information is much more important than how we received that information – and this is perhaps something that is not always considered in the teaching and learning process. If indeed this is the case, then I would argue that effective teachers give every student multiple ways of obtaining information (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.); but then concentrate on students making sense of that information and applying it to solve problems and/or construct a well informed view of their world. Information comes at us through every conceivable mode (sound, print, video, observation, social interaction, self reflection). It would seem that the more experienced students are at making sense of information from multiple sources, the better equipped they will be as learners. One way of looking at this may be think of teaching as teaching learners how to learn through multiple types of information sources.

    Just some thoughts…

    Thanks again for sharing.

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