Learning Styles – Well, Not Quite

Learning Styles?

Learning Styles?

We still hear much about ‘learning styles’, which is a concept, widely promoted in some educational organizations, that believes that learners are more effective at learning when they are taught or study in certain ways, for example, auditory, visual, physical, experiential, etc. How many times have you heard a learner say ‘I’m a visual learner’? However, substantiating these claims is difficult, if at all achievable.

Over 71 different models of learning style have been identified [Coffield, Frank; Moseley, David; Hall, Elaine; Ecclestone, Kathryn (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review (PDF). London: Learning and Skills Research Centre], so clearly there is no ideal so called learning style for individuals, despite what some proponents may say.

Blending features which are relevant to the learning context and focusing on the delivery to provide a well rounded approach will probably offer a more effective method than focusing on so called learning styles.

” … it makes more sense to emphasize the instructional techniques …. that have been validated by research as benefiting learners regardless of their style preferences”. [Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) ‘Make it stick. The Science of Successful Learning’, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p.146]

We want to help learners learn as effectively as possible, but let’s not influence their way of thinking from the start by pigeon holing them into some pseudo-scientific thinking and deny them the opportunity of engaging with the wider and exciting aspects the full learning process and experience can bring.

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” [Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, (2009)  ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence‘, Association for Psychological Science, Vol 9, No.3)

There is an argument that the promotion of learning styles has been made by some teachers and organizations to divert attention away from their limited and in some cases ineffective classroom and teaching techniques onto that of the learner, under the guise of empowering the learner as the customer who chooses what they (unknowingly, but heavily influenced by others) want.

Deconstructing learning styles as part of the overall delivery package within specific instructional techniques such as demonstration, discovery, inquiry – problem solving, simulation,  role-play, preparation for lectures, may help to improve a learner’s ability to learn and especially recall and demonstrate, with insight, later on. This does take time and experience of the specific context of learning, yet quick fixes to educational challenges are not often successful and learning styles (which we musn’t confuse with instructional techniques) is one of those which offers much plausible potential, yet, research has demonstrated delivers little in substance.

[See also, Sottilare, Robert & DeFalco, Jeanine & Connor, Janice. (2014). ‘A Guide to Instructional Techniques, Strategies and Tactics to Manage Learner Affect, Engagement, and Grit.

Now, that’s off my chest!

Chris Gray, 25th May 2019