Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?

MSc eLearning: Essay Wordle

Before we begin, I want to address a study that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, and on the mainstream news. It claimed that “brain-training” is not effective. Huh? In spite of the quality of the journal, don’t swallow the study results. Why?

Three reasons: 1) the “brain training” was only 10 minutes a day – way too short for the brain to change. You need 20-60 min./day. 2) a small sample size was used, not a large random one, so you can’t generalize, and 3) there was no monitoring the brain training; all was done at home, where presumably, people are talking to family, spacing out, and not highly vested. Listen: the brain can change, but you have to follow the rules!

Okay; I got that off my chest. Now, let’s focus on something I ordinarily NEVER focus on.

There are many so-called “truths” that float around in education. Some actually are true, and others are a big, smelly pile of doo-doo. For example, if you’ve been to any of my workshops lately, you know why you should NEVER buy into the myth of the “normal” kid.But for today’s newsletter, we’d got another shocker: neuroscientist Susan Greenfield said that from a neuroscience point viewpoint, the whole idea of using learning styles for teaching is nonsense. By the way, she’s not alone in believing there is no such thing as a learning style.

But wait, there’s more…

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) commissions panels of leading psychologists and cognitive scientists to evaluate topics of public interest, and publishes their reports in Psychological Science. In late 2009, the panel concluded that an adequate evaluation of the learning styles hypothesis – the idea that optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles – requires a particular kind of study – AND IT HAS NOT BEEN DONE.

How could you “prove” learning styles.

Here’s what you’d have to do: group students into the learning style categories that are being evaluated (e.g., visual learners vs. verbal learners), and then students in each group must be randomly assigned to one of the learning methods (e.g., visual learning or verbal learning), so that some students will be “matched” and others will be “mismatched.”

After the learning and consolidation time, all students must sit for the same test. If the learning style hypothesis is correct, then, for example, visual learners should learn better with the visual method, whereas auditory learners should learn better with the auditory method. But Massa & Mayer, 2006 have found that this has not been done.

So what does this mean?

While we could say that the multiple intelligences are the “output” of a learner, the input can typically be labeled as one of the more sensory modalities (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile.) Besides our five most commonly known senses, one author, Diane Ackerman in The Natural History of the Senses suggested we have 19 senses (1990). Researchers like Anthony Gregorc, Neil Fleming’s VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) Learning Style Test, Rita Dunn and Kenneth Dunn, Ned Hermann’s Brain Dominance and David Kolb (among others) have all suggested that learners have a preferred way to learn. You may have noticed that in your classroom. In fact, a literature review identified 71 different theories of learning styles (Coffield, et al. 2004). Some of the proponents use broader labels than a mere sense; these labels tell a bit about how they (the learners) like to preferentially process the information. Many of these theories have become standards in schools of education.

Gregorc and Butler designed a model describing how the mind works: 1) concrete and 2) abstract; and two ordering abilities 1) random and 2) sequential.

Bernice McCarthy introduced a learning style format (the “4-MAT system”) which asks the questions based on what, how, why and if.

David Kolb has identified and integrated both personality and learning styles: 1) assimilators, who learn better when presented with sound logical theories to consider, 2) convergers, who learn better when provided with practical applications of concepts and theories, 3) accommodators, who learn better when provided with “hands-on” experiences, and 4) divergers, who learn better when allowed to observe and collect a wide range of information.

Others claim the VAK model: visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.) Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.) Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience – moving, touching, and experiencing.

For both the proponents and critics, learning styles remains one of the great conundrums in American education. Intuitively, it is hard to argue with the premise that all kids are unique. One must almost certainly agree that with many ways to learn, kids do seem to have preferences. Yet when we get to the scientific support, published in peer-reviewed journals, the evidence is weak. A recent study found research flaws (marginal quality data, poor samples, non-existent or poorly designed studies) with every major learning style (Coffield, et al. 2004.)

However, a recent brain-based (fMRI) study did match up Verbalizer-Visualizer Questionnaire (VVQ) results and modality-specific subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) with location specific brain area matching using an fMRI. The results suggested that modality-specific cortical activity do underlie processing in visual and verbal cognitive styles (Kraemer et al. 2009.)

But this study was the only brain-based one in the databases. Clearly, more research is needed.

Applications:

Let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above. First, quality studies in education (large sample sizes, randomized, cross-over design, longitudinal, etc.) are very expensive and rare. So the lack of quality studies may raise an eyebrow, but unless there’s a drug being tested by a company with deep pockets, it’s hard to get the best quality for studies in education. Second, you cannot “prove” anything, only disprove it. The evidence that “disproves” learning styles is not 100% airtight, by any means. Having said that, here’s what I recommend:

Something to stop doing? The vast majority of educators will tell you that learning styles are a proven fact. But they’re not. They are an unproven theory that may be useful. Stop assuming that just because other teachers say something is so, that they’re right. Stop assuming that because most everyone treats learning styles as an accepted “fact” that they are right. I have been one of those who just accepted that since “everyone” believes it, they must all be right.

Learning Styles seems so intuitively easy to support and see in the classroom, that I buy into it. But there are many things that you (we all) can buy into, even if the facts are not there yet. This does not mean that you are wrong. It just means that you can’t stand on a large body of science or research to back your beliefs. What you can do is to say, “When I did it this way, it helped this student perform better.” No one can argue with those results.

How you teach activates either more visual, auditory or tactile neuron assemblies. My thinking is that some sensory “classes” (visual, auditory, etc.), become desensitized and other classes become more activated. This makes them sensitized to specific stimulation. Huh? Yes, that means the more you activate a certain modality in a student, the greater the likelihood that you will change their brain’s response to it.

What to do? In your teaching, continue to use a variety of teaching methods. Continue to combine visual with auditory. Be sure to add the tactile and action-based processes to learning. Continue to notice which kids respond better to which types of teaching.

Ah, but nothing beats some classroom-based action research. If you’ve got a few moments, set up some experiments in your class before the year’s up and try out a few ideas like the proposed study mentioned above. You might be surprised by the results!

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Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Willingham, Daniel. Willingham: No evidence exists for learning style theories. Retrieved on February 24, 2010, from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/daniel-willingham/-my-guest-today-is.html

Kraemer DJ, Rosenberg LM, Thompson-Schill SL. (2009) The neural correlates of visual and verbal cognitive styles. J Neurosci. Mar 25;29(12):3792-8.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119. Massa, L. J., & Mayer, R. E. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences, 16, 321–336.

Glenn, David. Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students. Retrieved on February 24, 2010, from http://chronicle.com/article/Matching-Teaching-Style-to/49497/ Holden, Constance. Learning with Style. Retrieved on February 24, 2010, from http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol327/issue5962/r-samples.dtl

Creative Commons License photo credit: Biology Big Brother

8 Comments

  1. Dorothy Devine

    Hi Eric,
    I read with fascination this article. I wondered if there is any research you are aware of which supports the notion that all styles of learning exists in individuals and the important issue is to go through the ‘learning loop’ . i suspect I am a visual learner who than needs to talk things over followed by activating the learning in some type of kinesthetic application?
    thus my loop is VAK .
    Thanks
    D

  2. Eric J

    Hi Dorothy

    There is plenty of anecdotal evidence on that you are right. Many learners report a see-do, or look-say sequence that helps them learn better. Don’t know of research that supports it.

    In the classroom, you got to use what is working, as long as there is no downside.

    As I said in the article, just because there is no research on something, you can still use a strategy. You just can’t call it “research-supported.”

    Cheers

  3. Interesting spin.

    However, if it is not research based than it cannot be argued has having validity.

    It is dangerous. To know that students of education are being trained in these unfounded theories and making educational decisions based on faulty presuppositions is detrimental to our students.

    Students prefer to do things they are good at. Those who have strong vocabularies and syntax in oral language tend to perform better in English and social studies. The converse, those students who are weaker in those cognitive skills, can be partially compensated by utilizing visuals and having relatively difficult texts read to them. That doesn’t mean that they have a preferred learning style, just a deficiency in specific cognitive tasks that certain subjects demand of them.

    The reason why so many people believe in it is because there are intrinsic implications to being correct. This does not mean there is tangible evidence or a need to create such tailored and exhaustive lessons. Simply basing your subject domain on the set of cognitive tasks that underly its structure with multi-sensory support is valid enough.

    Compensatory education has always been an issue with education. Remedial education has a place, it should be used to help students eviscerate their particular discrepancies in focused cognitive tasks that are impairing their performance in particular subject areas. Learning styles does not necessarily complete this task.

    If a student has a deficiency in math computation, reading, or writing one would correctly assume that they need explicit instruction in how to improve those skills. By providing some ancillary supports in a classroom such as pictures, videos, auditory explanations at grade level, and novel experiences, students can increase comprehension in those subject areas. However, this does not denote a support for creating differentiated classrooms based on multiple-intelligences or learning styles.

    As someone who started off doing just that, and not moving to a more classical form of instruction with the amendment of multi-sensory supports, I can say that my “anecdotal” evidence supports the latter.

    Best,

    Jason

  4. Mac Lasseigne

    Cannibals prefer those who have no spines.
    Try, try, try, and on trying will be the rule that needs to be followed being a professional in anything.

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