Time for a Learning Styles post

The POD network (an organization of higher education faculty development professionals) listserv occasionally visits the topic of learning styles, and I felt compelled to weigh in this time. Unfortunately, my response came out terribly formatted, so I will redo it here.

The discussion included the usual back-and-forth between skeptics and not-so-skeptics, and then someone shared a brief essay from Neil Fleming, author of the VARK learning style assessment, questioning the arguments against learning styles. The essay begins:

The most damning criticism, about learning styles comes from researchers in the academic world. Not much comes from those who use learning styles as part of their strategies for learning, training and teaching. It is usually stated in these terms: “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

My response:

I disagree with the assertion that the strongest criticism of “learning styles” is that “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

The strongest criticism is that there is no evidence that instructors succeed in improving learning by attempting to diagnose student learning styles, and adjusting instruction accordingly for the individual students. This is what Pashler et al (2009) call the “meshing hypothesis” (p. 108), Coffield et al (2004) call the “matching hypothesis” (p. 121), and Riener and Willingham (2010) label the “critical and specific claim of learning-styles proponents.”

If learning-style proponents wish to argue that the critics are knocking at a straw man, they are, IMHO, willfully ignoring what many K-16 educators have decided that they are supposed to believe about learning styles.

On the question of whether self-awareness of learning styles is beneficial to learning, the critics are less clear. In fact, Coffield et al state (p. 132)

A reliable and valid instrument which measures learning styles and approaches could be used as a tool to encourage self- development, not only by diagnosing how people learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning.

and (p. 120)

Learning styles can provide learners with a much needed ‘lexicon of learning’ – a language with which to discuss, for instance, their own learning preferences and those of others, how people learn and fail to learn, why they try to learn, how different people see learning, how they plan and monitor it, and how teachers can facilitate or hinder these processes. Through dialogue with a tutor knowledgeable about the relevant literature, the students’ repertoire of learning styles can be enhanced in the hope of raising their expectations and aspirations.

However, the concern is that a shallower approach to self-diagnosis of learning styles can be counter-productive.

Pashler et al. (p. 117):

There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal ways.

I would like to be optimistic in the vein of Coffield et al, but as long as most student knowledge about “learning styles” is derived from experience with teachers who believe in the matching approach, I think even this is problematic.

What beliefs and experiences do you have about “learning styles?”


16 thoughts on “Time for a Learning Styles post

  1. Some studies and commentary several years ago discredited both the existence and usefulness of learning styles (stories like http://n.pr/KSazwZ and the 2008 study at http://psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf), but certainly the biggest problem has been the last one you mention. I have had many students use their designated learning style as an excuse not to do a task in a way that doesn’t match their style, and then I have to explain how a preferred learning mode is something that needs to be challenged rather than catered to (i.e. if you think you are a “visual learner”, you should work much harder at auditory or text learning).

    I certainly don’t like the idea that we can “diagnose” how an individual learns – there have been many experiments in that regard and if any were successful we would no longer have competing theories about learning. At the same time, learning styles have indeed provided us with a framework for talking about the different ways we all can learn, and that’s a very good thing.

  2. My response is much like Lisa’s – it would be great if students were using this information in a dynamic and pro-active way, but I more often encounter it in a self-limiting way – “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m a kinaesthetic learner” … which then becomes a reason not to engage with other kinds of learning materials. It’s like Dweck’s mindsets – if someone approaches learning styles as a kind of tool for self-awareness and description of experience in order to move forward and grow, making self-aware choices as part of the growth process, that could be useful, but if it becomes instead a self-limiting label that shuts people off from potential learning experiences, that is not a good thing. I find it more useful to avoid the labels and just try to help make students more aware of things they can do to focus attention and heighten recall while they are reading, watching, writing, listening, etc., leaving the essentialist labels aside.

    • Thanks, Lisa and Laura, for the thoughts. I’m in agreement with you both that metacognitive awareness and strategies are beneficial to learning, but “diagnosis” and labeling is often problematic. But helping both instructors and students to grasp this and incorporate it into teaching and learning is difficult, especially with all the misinformation, misunderstandings, controversy, and ongoing research & theorizing influencing what people believe about learning.

      I’m a fan of Universal Design for Learning as a framework for helping instructors approach course design and facilitation in ways that will help diverse students to learn: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl and http://enact.sonoma.edu/content.php?pid=218878&sid=2031274

  3. Jim:

    Thanks for the super links to UDL — these are the best I have seen yet.

    While I am so very aware of the minefield of the “shallow approach” to learning styles– the diagnosis/prescription model– I have to admit that there is nothing like the Kolb LSI to help my (Teaching Principles and Practice) students understand that not everyone learns the same way they do. The two class periods we spend on this spawn some excellent discussions about how different students experience and enter into the learning cycle. Somehow the different sized shaped “kites” generated by the LSI lend more credibility to their comments. The students subsequently make a sincere effort to include activities in their lessons that may not be the most appealing to them, as the “teacher” of the lessons. Of course, we then discuss all of the components of learning that are NOT included in the Kolb ELC. Being at an art school, we call the ELC an “armature” that we can hang other knowledge about learning on.

    I am starting to use the analogy of nutrition when talking about learning styles– especially the unbiquitous VAK/ VARK styles. If you are a little deficient in Vitamin A, you would not eat only Vitamin A to become healthy– any more than a self described “visual learner” should try to put all information to learn into charts and picture. We need a balanced diet not matter what, and it is quite clear that vitamins don’t tell the whole story on nutrition (see Michael Pollen’s article Unhappy Meals on “nutritionism” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html ) and more than learning styles (of any sort) tell the whole story of learning. Whole foods in a balanced diet are analogous to “whole teaching.” Of course, the vitamin lens is useful to spot check that balance– just as the learning styles lenses can be useful to spot check the balance in our teaching. (You get the idea…! I’ll stop now! I realize I am proably “preaching to the choir” here, anyway, right? )

    • I appreciate your sharing, Natasha. I looked briefly at the Kolb LSI site (http://learningfromexperience.com/tools/kolb-learning-style-inventory-lsi/) and this jumped out at me:
      “The experiential learning styles are not fixed traits but dynamic states that can “flex” to meet the demands of different learning situations.”

      This concept seems important to include in any learning style/preference diagnostic & discussion with students & teachers … that (assuming a valid instrument) the findings are not fixed. As a teaching principle, it seems the scientific literature is more supportive of matching teaching style to content/subject matter than to student learning styles. Do you discuss this? and if so, I’m wondering how that discussion plays into the student thinking about what the LSI says to them.

  4. Thanks for sharing my article. I think that bringing attention to metacognitive strategies, and differences in how students learn can be good, but we should be careful to identify what is actually bringing the benefit.
    For example, if I as a teacher have an individual meeting with each student in my class, give them a learning styles inventory, and then have a detailed conversation about how I can make the class friendlier to an auditory learner, I have no doubt that they wound enjoy this, find it useful, and become more engaged in the class. However, are they doing this because they have been identified as an auditory learner or because I have shown them individual attention and compassion?
    Likewise, an attention to the process of learning, not just the content at hand, can have benefits regardless of whether one actually represents the process accurately.
    Thanks for those UDL links, that looks like a good approach, although I am not a big fan of the brain pictures. Pairing an approach like this with individual compassion and motivation seems like a winner for me.
    I had a bit of a dialogue with a teacher and defender of learning styles in Teacher Magazine a little while back that you might be interested in. Here’s the link

    • Thanks for stopping in and sharing, Cedar … I am confident this discussion will be ongoing for a very long time due to entrenched, self-confirming beliefs born out of the very best of intentions of educational professionals.

      I don’t think it would be possible to be an effective practitioner of UDL without the compassion/motivation pieces in place.

      Here’s my favorite one-pager of practical UDL-related actions college instructors can take: http://ctfd.sfsu.edu/sites/default/files/publications/14-Common-Elements-of-UDL-in-the-College-Classroom.pdf
      Individually they are mostly of the “well, duh” variety, but in toto I think it would create a very powerful learning environment for all students.

  5. It seems to be the case to me that the major issue with the learning styles movement is the tension it creates between a view of Personal Design for Learning and a view of Universal Design for Learning.

    If I may elaborate a little further. As I understand, although there is no single theory of learning styles which encompasses all the approaches that are advocated, one of its general premises is a stance that suggests as every person is also like no other person in some ways and the differences can be physical, emotional or mental so in a learning context any given individual, at any particular time, will draw upon their physical, emotional and mental resources to approach the task of learning in a way that is unique to them. This personal approach to learning is generally termed their learning style but may be referred to as their learning preferences or other similar terminology.

    The main thrust of the current learning styles movement is that this means learners have different yet consistent ways of responding in learning situations. Learners therefore are predisposed to think, feel and behave in a particular fashion when faced with a learning task. This inclination is independent of who they may be learning alongside, the nature of the relationship they have established with their teacher, how much they already know or can do in relation to what they are learning, the subject matter of what they are attempting to learn or any other similar learning context variable. So in any given situation a learner will approach the task of learning in their “preferred” way. A learning style is in essence an individual’s preferred way of learning albeit, as some advocate, this can change over time. Without the intervention of a facilitator, any given individual will use their preferred approach to learning when faced with any learning task.

    And because every person is like some other person in some ways, and again the likenesses can be physical, emotional and mental, in a learning context any given individual will approach the task of learning something in a similar way to some other person(s). It therefore is possible to categorise similarities in style/preference and the categories used will depend on the lens through which the similarities are viewed for example concrete, visual, analytical, field dependent. So the styles movement suggests that each person will approach the task of learning something in a way that is both similar to other people and is also unique to them.

    The current learning styles model proposes therefore that it is possible to identify an individual’s learning style through use of a diagnostic instrument and by tailoring learning experiences according to the outcomes of the diagnosis improve the effectiveness of any particular learning event. And this is done without making any reference to specific learning context factors.

    The Universal Design for Learning, as I understand, takes a different stance by suggesting there are numerous ways in which ALL of us can learn effectively and it is most likely that the way we choose to learn on any occasion, is influenced more by what we are attempting to learn, how much we already know about the subject of our learning and other context factors than on a proposed personal learning preference. I think there is more mileage in the UDL model than the somwhat outdated learning styles model.

    • Whoo, wasn’t sure exactly where you were going there until that last sentence, Terry! I think you’ve summed up the learning styles “case” pretty well, and let me just point out that I think the most problematic areas that debunkers focus on are:
      – the idea that “in any given situation a learner will approach the task of learning in their ‘preferred’ way”
      – the seemingly endless variations on “lenses” through which one might create categories of “similarities in style/preference”
      – and the notion of diagnosing individual learning styles and tailoring learning experiences accordingly to “improve the effectiveness of any particular learning event”

      I think that you are largely correct in saying that UDL accounts for wider individual variation, not only across individuals but also across contexts for a given individual. UDL arose out of the special education/disability/assistive technology community, and thus the focus is on creating instructional materials and experiences that do not require reactive accommodation for unique learners. UDL and accessibility advocates point out that by proactively doing things like providing transcripts and/or captions for videos, e.g., you end up providing resources that are better for many people & situations. A captioned video is more easily searched/indexed, more useful to someone in a situation where audio might be problematic, better for second language learners, etc.

  6. Jim,

    Excellent post. Balanced, open, and productive opinions, such as your own, are hard to come by in this debate. As a social psychologist, I always resonate with interventions that help all students to succeed (UDL being an great example) as opposed to focusing on individual differences. I have a post about other like-minded, theory-based, social-psychological interventions: http://bit.ly/LE9MyV

    • Thanks, Andy. Great post. Unfortunately, easier said than done, eh? Too many teachers and students have negative views of “cooperative learning” because they were in situations where that meant, “find a group and do this project together.” Of course, that means the ones that really cared did the work, were annoyed with the others, and the teacher became fed up with dealing with dissatisfaction. So then instructors who understand how to create “positive interdependence” through structured experiences (e.g. jigsaw) also have to overcome student resistance to “groupwork” … a problem similar to student resistance to certain tasks because they have a poor understanding of “their learning style” based on previous experiences with well-intentioned but under-informed teachers.

      • That’s why I never call it group work, cooperative learning, collaborative learning, etc. 🙂 I prime students that they’re going to have to get up and work together at points and then we go. I hate to get up and work with others, too. Yet, when CL practitioners effectively structure positive interdependence, we’re “tricked” into great learning experiences. I’m sure you’ve watched a class go from groaning about a CL activity (e.g., jigsaw) to, 50 minutes later, having the the time of their life. But you’re absolutely right, negative experiences with and attitudes toward CL is the main barrier. In the end, I’d still rather push interventions that, when done right, are consistently efficacious. This is something that can’t be said for learning styles.

  7. Thanks for the feedback Jim. It is appreciated. Although for the most part, my previous blog was quite detailed I make no apologies for it being so. There are so many competing “theories” around about learning styles it can be difficult to distil them effectively and I wanted to let you know where I was coming from.

    Perhaps, in some ways it is unfortunate that the current concept of learning styles is flawed. Over the years I suspect it has done much to dismantle the long established practices of perpetual didactic “chalk and talk” approaches and helped to spearhead methods that are more multi-modal, participative and reflective. Pausing for a moment of reflection by the way, may help many of us begin to question the fundamentals of the learning styles concept. Do we really think that in any given situation a learner will always approach the task of learning in the same way irrespective of context variables? Will someone really attempt to learn how to play the piano in the same way as they would attempt to learn how to read music or attempt to learn how to appreciate the different playing styles of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff? And is it really possible to become proficient in all of these aspects of music by learning in one particular way?

    I think the problematic areas of the current learning styles movement that you point out are truly salient. I would add another to the list – its enduring resilience. Learning styles has built up a significant head of steam globally and it may take some time for it to dampen down.

    • Terry, I agree that it is likely that the learning styles concept has likely done far more good than harm over the years in terms of encouraging teachers to move away from traditional didactic methods to more learner-centered approaches. That makes it tricky when wading into debunking waters – I want to be clear that in pointing out the flaws in Learning Styles, I am not at all dismissing the importance of accounting for learner differences through quality teaching approaches a la UDL and, as Andy points out above, well-structured social pedagogies.

      My favorite post on straddling this line is here: http://hypergogue.net/thinking-styles/ … A quote:
      “Like I said, I’m a reformed Learning Styles person. I’ve taught the VAK brand of Learning Styles nonsense to hundreds of people on Training the Trainer courses and, what’s more, I gathered empirical data to show that this was effective.

      And, believe me, it was; newly-minted trainers, filled with baloney like VAK, do better than trainers who have no theoretical peg – astrological or otherwise – to hang the ‘use an eclectic variety of learning activities’ idea onto.

      There was a vacant space in my head waiting for VAK. And, it seems, in the heads of all the people I taught.”

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