About Learning Styles

There is a running debate among educators concerning the validity of the conceptual framework of learning styles. Learning Styles emerged in the 1970’s as a theoretical explanation of the variability among individuals engaged in learning, but has been around since Aristotle. The journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) published a report (Psychological Science in the Public Interest December 2008 vol. 9 no. 3 105-119)  critical of aggregated clusters of students with common learning styles. Authors Hal Pashler of the University of California, San Diego,  Mark McDaniel of Washington University, Doug Rohrer from University of South Florida, and Robert Bjork from University of California, Los Angeles concluded

that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.

The Myth of Learning Styles

coverNext comes the Change Magazine Article. The article titled The Myth of Learning Styles was published in the September-October 2010 issue. The article by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham begins with one important salient point:
“There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist.”
So here is the punch line: Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning.
The article is organized around the following questions.
  • What is a Learning Style?
  • Which Claims of Learning-Styles Theorists are Correct?
  • What Do Learning-Styles Theorists Get Wrong?
  • Why Does the Belief in Learning Styles Persevere?
  • Why Should College Educators Care?

 Learning Styles: Fact and Fiction

The question of Learning Styles comes up frequently among curriculum designers, academic administrators, and faculty and reviews appear fairly regularly.  A Blog post  titled Learning Styles: Fact and Fiction – A Conference Report, from 2011 by Derek Bruff, Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University does an excellent job of framing the issues and articulating the various perspectives.

Howard Gardner setting the record straight: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’

An article in the Washington Post, October 16, 2013 adds another point to the review of Learning Styles. It clarifies the difference between multiple intelligences and learning styles.

 It’s been 30 years since I developed the notion of “multiple intelligences.” I have been gratified by the interest shown in this idea and the ways it’s been used in schools, museums, and businesses around the world. But one unanticipated consequence has driven me to distraction—and that’s the tendency of many people, including persons whom I cherish, to credit me with the notion of ‘learning styles’ or to collapse ‘multiple intelligences’ with ‘learning styles.’ It’s high time to relieve my pain and to set the record straight.
As an educator, I draw three primary lessons for educators:
1.       Individualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead of “one size fits all,” learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively. Of course this is easier to accomplish with smaller classes. But ‘apps’ make it possible to individualize for everyone.
2.        Pluralize your teaching. Teach important materials in several ways, not just one (e.g. through stories, works of art, diagrams, role play). In this way you can reach students who learn in different ways. Also, by presenting materials in various ways, you convey what it means to understand something well. If you can only teach in one way, your own understanding is likely to be thin.
3.       Drop the term “styles.” It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.

For the story of how Gardner came up with  Multiple Intelligences : The First Thirty Years, Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Myth of Learning Styles

As final punctuation to the point I offer Peter DeWitt’s confession.

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