On Learning Styles

(Content note: I might be cheating a little here.  I’ve copied much of the text below from a post I wrote for a discussion forum on Learning Styles that I participated in for an Instructional Strategies course.  But that forum is essentially private, and I liked this stuff too much to keep it off my blog.  The text below is somewhat edited from the original post in an attempt to keep it more on-topic and at least slightly more scholarly. References here are provided in links; scholarly references are provided via links to my favourite freely-accessible source for such things, PubMed, to ensure relatively easy public access.)

Right off the bat: I reject the use of “Learning Styles”to inform and develop instructional strategies.  You’ve been warned…

To be fair, there is no doubt in my mind that individuals may prefer to learn a certain way, or prefer to learn about certain types of material.  I’m not going to dispute here the presence of “Learning Style Preferences” (even though I . However, the vast majority of studies done looking at whether adapting teaching or presentation style to an individual’s learning style clearly show no benefit to doing so.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement!  As a starting point for anyone interested in delving into all the research to date, a 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology laments the fact that they’re still being referenced, and nicely outlines the evidence against them.

Personally, I really don’t see myself as having any one preferred (or most effective) learning style.  The ‘best’ style depends on the content/task being learned.  But for me, how well I learn something seems to me to be less related to what it is or what ‘style’ it would fit into, and more a function of (a) how interesting I find it, and (b) how many different presentation styles are used.

Some material certainly seems to lend itself to more efficient learning through one or two styles over others; learning to point to the location or identify the shape of (say) South Africa on a globe might be made unnecessarily difficult if I were to try using purely auditory information, for example.  But in reality: does anyone try to teach – or learn! – content using a single style alone, and really expect that to be maximally effective?

I happen to ride horses as a hobby, and to learn correct leg position, (1) I was told what to do, (2) I looked in a mirror at myself alongside other ‘correct’ riders, (3) I had an instructor ask me to explain what’s off about my position, and (4) I had my lower leg manipulated into position by an instructor.  Sure, I probably could learn correct position with any one of those, and if forced to identify which one would work best in isolation I’d have said the decidedly visual comparison of my own position with the ‘correct’ one.  Some would say that makes me a ‘visual learner’.  But by “Learning Styles” theories, that means I could have learned this just as well even if I had been presented with only visual information.  Somehow I rather doubt that visual information alone would have worked nearly as well (or as quickly) as having access to all those sources of information at once… and although that sounds anecdotal, the evidence backs me up on that front.

If we can get more different sensory systems (verbal, auditory, visual, motor) participating in a particular learning task, the brain ultimately ends up with more reference points from which to access and recall more information, in more detail.  I’d argue that the use of multiple sensory systems during learning is the fundamental underpinning to ‘active learning’, the efficacy of which is supported by evidence, and at least gets us partway to ‘engagement’ (the ‘motivation’ bit of that may be a whole other kettle of fish… see this post for a hint of what’s to come…).  Which (finally!) brings me to my main point: Rather than trying to identify an individual’s learning style, I’d argue instead that ANYONE will learn ANY content “best”, regardless of subject matter, if as many different ‘styles’ as possible are accessed.

I haven’t been able to come up with any cases where having (non-conflicting*) information presented using ALL those styles would actually be detrimental to learning.  I DO see potential harm in trying to target a single sensory system at the exclusion of others, which is what a strong focus on “Learning Styles” encourages.

(*As a sidenote, it is important that the information presented in different modalities be consistent, to prevent encountering memory interference.)

As a final thought, I certainly don’t want to disregard the value of the research that “Learning Styles” theories have spawned.  I WOULD like to see the focus shifted away from trying to tailor a presentation to an individual ‘learning style’, towards making use of as many different ‘styles’ as possible, for EVERY student.  Let’s give everyone a whole context that they can work within to understand a given concept or task, so everyone can learn “best”. And there is mounting evidence that presenting information in a way that seeks to access as many ‘learning styles’ as possible may be an effective instructional strategy.  Several studies (e.g.: 2015, 2014, 2009, 2007) have demonstrated that students nearly universally prefer multimodal learning over a single-style approach.  Perhaps even more promising, a recent study suggests that demonstrating the use of such a ‘mixed methods’ approach can both improve student performance and encourage students to try to look at material in different ways on their own.  What a wonderful thought!

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