Nov 072011

Learning Styles: Worth Our Time?

Learning Styles: 21 September 2010 By Cathy Moore

If you had time to evaluate the research on learning styles, what would you conclude?

Here’s what four cognitive psychologists concluded: “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.”

learning stylesThat quote is from Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, an examination of learning style research. Some more quotes from the paper:

  • Studies are weak: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.” “Meshing” refers to changing your teaching style to match a learning style. (p. 105)
  • Variation among learners doesn’t prove any specific theory: “It is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another…. There is, however, a great gap from such heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations … to the notion that presently available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Perhaps future research may demonstrate such linkages, but at present, we find no evidence for it.” (p. 116)
  • It might seem intuitive, but that doesn’t make it scientific: “There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in non-optimal ways. This fact makes it clear that research—not intuition or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for upgrading teaching and learning.” (p. 117)
  • Don’t spend time on something that isn’t proven: “We conclude therefore, 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.” (p. 105)

So what are those “other practices” that would be more effective? Another, even more exhaustive study of learning styles research offers some ideas.

In Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review, the authors suggest that instead of adapting instruction to one of the gajillions of learning style theories, we should build learners’ metacognitive skills and use formative assessment:

  • “Marzano (1998) reported on the largest meta-analysis of research on instruction ever undertaken. He found that approaches which were directed at the metacognitive level of setting goals, choosing appropriate strategies and monitoring progress are more effective in improving knowledge outcomes than those which simply aim to engage learners at the level of presenting information for understanding and use.” (p. 143)
  • “Black and Wiliam (1998a) … concluded from their study of the most carefully conducted quantitative experiments that: ‘Innovations which include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant, and often substantial, learning gains…. The formative assessment experiments produce typical effect sizes of between 0.4 and 0.7: such effect sizes are larger than most of those found for educational interventions.’” (p. 143)

So rather than creating redundant versions of the same material, such as narrating on-screen text, we would likely get better results by helping learners structure their learning and gauge their progress, and by offering contextual feedback and any necessary reinforcement.

Like the authors of Learning Styles: Concept and Evidence, the team that produced this (huge! detailed!) study found no clear evidence supporting any of the many theories about learning styles. They fault weak methodology and the commercial nature of much of the research:

  • “Research into learning styles can, in the main, be characterised as small-scale, non-cumulative, uncritical and inward-looking.” (p. 143)
  • “A thriving commercial industry has also been built to offer advice to teachers, tutors and managers on learning styles, and much of it consists of inflated claims and sweeping conclusions which go beyond the current knowledge base.” (p. 127)
  • “Instruments to measure learning styles are weak: We therefore advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments.” (p. 134)

Whew. That’s an unusual amount of serious text for this blog. If you want to read even more, check out the studies.


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