Whither learning styles?

22 December 2009

The Chronicle of Higher Education led me to an interesting article on learning styles by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2009).

The summary of the article outlines the idea of learning styles:

The term “learning styles” refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly. Assessments of learning style typically ask people to evaluate what sort of information presentation they prefer (e.g., words versus pictures versus speech) and/or what kind of mental activity they find most engaging or congenial (e.g., analysis versus listening), although assessment instruments are extremely diverse. The most common–but not the only–hypothesis about the instructional relevance of learning styles is the meshing hypothesis, according to which instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preferences of the learner (e.g., for a “visual learner,” emphasizing visual presentation of information).

The learning-styles view has acquired great influence within the education field, and is frequently encountered at levels ranging from kindergarten to graduate school. There is a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks for teachers, and many organizations offer professional development workshops for teachers and educators built around the concept of learning styles.

The article, commissioned by Psychological Science in the Public Interest, goes on to question what evidence there is to support these type of practices; i.e., is there evidence that attending to learning styles has a material impact on learning?

I think my first exposure to the notion of learning styles was through Darl Kolb who gave me David Kolb’s (1976) classic article to read. One take-away I had from that article was, that although we might have preferences (in our style of learning) it is generally a good thing to be able to draw on all the styles. In particular Kolb (1976, p. 30) says “When one perspective [learning style] comes to dominate others, learning effectiveness is reduced in the long run. From this we can conclude that the most effective learning systems are those that can tolerate differences in perspective”. For Kolb (1976) and for Pashler et al., (2009) there is clear–if not undisputed evidence–that people have preferences as to how they learn. The question remains as to how much those preferences should be accommodated in the educational process; is learning ineffective, or less effective if learning styles are not taken into consideration?

Having considered the evidence the conclusion Pashler et al., (2009) draw is that, generally, the nature of the content should determine the style of learning adopted. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education describes how learning about the structure of molecules is better for most students (independent of learning styles) by building ball-and-stick models. Even those students who have a preference for verbal learning will do better if taught in this kinaesthetic manner (rather that catering to their preference). The Chronicle says “teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions”.

The fallacy that the authors seem to uncover is the argument that “student X did not do well because the teaching did not accommodate their particular learning style”. If the learning style matches the content (rather than the students preference) then usually the student will do better.

Returning to Kolb (David not Darl), the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that he says:

that the paper’s bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students’ particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full “learning cycle,” without regard to their students’ particular styles.)

So whither learning styles? For me, it means that the content should determine the means of teaching.

References

Kolb, D. A. (1976). Management and the learning process. California Management Review, 8(3), 21-31.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.