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?”