Why You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With 'Learning Styles'
opinion

Why You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With 'Learning Styles'

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“I’m a visual learner, so I need to see it to understand.”

How many times have you heard something like this? The sad thing is that many people cling to their learning styles talisman and impose their demands on educators.

There are many ways to create effective instruction and meet individual learner needs, but learning styles should not be one of the tools you use. Here’s why.

What are learning styles?

Let’s first clarify what we’re talking about. Learning styles theory has two core principles.

  1. People have preferences on how they receive information.
  2. If you tailor instruction to each person’s preference, they will learn it better.

There are more than 71 different learning styles schemas. One of the more common learning styles schemas is a collection of three: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic.

According to learning styles theory, if I’m a kinesthetic learner, I will understand and remember the material better if I move and manipulate things. So, an instructor should include an activity in which I act things out or construct something with my hands, like drawing a diagram or acting out the steps in the process.

Given any group of people, members will fall into each of the different categories within a schema. So as an instructor, I would have to incorporate activities that address the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Or, I would have to group people by their learning style and create different lesson plans for each style.

Learning styles are preferences--not aptitudes. In fact, Harvard professor Howard Gardner would like the public to stop confusing his work with learning styles. (Click that link to see his rant in the Washington Post.)

Sounds good, so what’s the problem with this?

While learning styles look attractive in theory, research has concluded that learning style-based interventions do not impact how well learners understand or can apply the material, and instruction tailored to different learning styles is not an effective use of resources.

To understand this conclusion, you must harken back to your days in science class. To demonstrate a causal relationship between two things (like how pollution and poor air quality) we must create two different groups. We apply a treatment to one group, but not the other. Then we measure to see if the treatment made any impact. No matter how complex the study, these fundamentals still apply when proving a causal relationship.

In 2009, when Harold Pashler et. al. [3] did a meta study of all the learning styles research. What they found was that the vast majority were never structured to actually validate that improved results were due to learning styles intervention, such as when a teacher. Those studies that were structured properly had mixed results or contradictory results.

Unless one test group received the learning styles intervention and the other didn’t, we can’t conclusively determine what caused the result. It could have been the weather, learning styles instruction, or the aptitude of the students that caused the improvement.

Because Pashler and his team could not find a statistically significant causal relationship in the literature, they concluded that learning styles is a belief not a proven method.

What’s behind all this bad learning styles research?

Many companies try to take advantage of selling tools that are “made with learning styles in mind.” For example, a “learning style vendor” can sell an assessment, differentiated curriculum, certification programs, and likely some training on how to use the learning style scheme. In fact, it’s such a lucrative business given that there are 71+ different learning styles to pander to.

But here’s the big kicker: it is many of these learning style companies that have funded learning style research to prove the validity of their own product. While it’s wise to validate products, it can create a great deal of bias that has destroyed the legitimacy of end results.

Where do we go from here?

There is a small chance that learning styles are effective, but instead of taking a risk with those learning style vendors, spend your limited educational resources on methods that are proven to be effective. Here’s a list, to start you off (with some helpful resource links):

Even if there is research in the future that demonstrates using learning styles improve performance, the effect of the intervention needs to be significant enough to overcome the large cost associated with implementing a learning styles based instructional methodology.

In the future, someone may prove that learning style practices are effective. In the meantime, learning is too important to gamble with something that might work. Use methods that we know do work.


Sources

Ruth Colvin Clark, “Stop Wasting Resources on Learning Styles,” May 12, 2012. <https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/L-and-D-Blog/2012/05/Stop-Wasting-Resources-on-Learning-Styles>, accessed May 18, 2015.

Paul Eggen and Don Kauchak Educational Psychology Windows on Classrooms, 6th ed., Pearson, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2004.

Pat Galagan, “Learning Styles: Going, Going, Almost Gone,” Jan 8, 2014, <https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2014/01/Learning-Styles-Going-Going-Almost-Gone>, accessed May 18, 2015.

Art Kohn, “Brain Science: Are Learning Styles Valid?,” December 17, 2014, <http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1589/brain-science-are-learning-styles-valid>, accessed May 18, 2015.

Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, “Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9, Number 3, December 2008, 105-119. Accessed from <https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf>.

Valerie Strauss, “Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’,” October 16, 2013, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles/>, accessed May 18, 2015.

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