Part of my role as Dean of Faculty occasionally involves conversations with either a student or a parent of a student who is struggling in an academic course.
Sometimes the exchange turns to the topic of learning styles—namely that a student is having difficulty in a class because the instructor’s teaching style does not align with the child’s learning style (some of the most commonly cited learning styles are verbal, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic). As prevalent as learning styles have been in academic conversations, teaching strategies, popular culture, graduate studies, and even some state teaching requirements, it has become readily apparent over the past ten years that the academic research does not support the theory that a student learns more effectively if she is taught in the style in which he or she supposedly “learns best.”
For many years, learning styles have been a regular part of pedagogical discussions, be it among parents, students, professors, teachers, and/or administrators. The very popular movement over the last 15-20 years of differentiation—whereby teachers develop different approaches to the same lesson to meet the cognitive needs of all students in a class—is heavily predicated upon the belief that students learn best when taught in a specific manner that may differ from individual to individual. Countless books, workshops, articles, and resources have developed around differentiation. While some effective strategies have been underscored as a result—for example, the belief that a teacher should use different approaches depending on the content being taught, or that students with learning differences need accommodations—the theory of differentiating according to learning styles has yet to be resoundingly supported by research in peer-reviewed publications.
How did such a theory gain so much traction, and why has it taken so long to begin to be dispelled? There are many possible answers to the former question. It is natural for humans to believe that they are more attuned to learning in one manner over another. This may be the result of a successful experience with a teacher who repeatedly used a particular instructional strategy or by hearing so much about learning styles either from acquaintances or in popular culture. It may also be that one naturally remembers, say, images easier than words, thus leading to the belief that one’s brain learns best with a visual approach. Another reason may be the prevalence of popular myths about brain function (for example, that humans use less than 10% of their brain) that, with the emergence of new technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are slowly being debunked. Regardless, I venture to guess that a large percentage of students (and, many times, their parents) believe in a theory of learning styles, that may, unfortunately and ironically, be an impediment to learning.
What studies have been shown to dismiss this theory? Many involve asking participants to self-categorize their purported learning style, then providing participants with opportunities to learn via both that preferred style and other styles. The overwhelming results of these studies is that, even if a self-described visual learner is provided with a set of words (for example, to learn a new task), then converts those words into images in the brain, the person did not learn the task any quicker or slower than a self-identified verbal learner.
So how should teachers use different approaches to greater effect even if they are not trying to teach towards a particular learning style? From a student’s perspective, it is certainly possible that one has a better auditory memory than a visual memory (or visa-versa), but this does not mean that this approach is suitable for all types of learning. For example, learning anatomy or microbiology without visual images would be very difficult for anyone. Similarly, learning history or another language without words would be equally problematic. Therefore, teachers need to acknowledge that different strategies need to be employed for different contexts. Repeatedly checking for understanding through various means helps educators diagnose student cognition.
How should students approach an academic challenge if they feel that a teacher’s instructional style does not align with how they believe they learn best? It is important to remember that many students naturally and understandably have learning preferences and strengths. What the research demonstrates is that it does not always make sense to teach towards a preferred learning style. As stated by Dr. Doug Rohrer, a Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, “no matter how much a student prefers words to diagrams, that student is better off learning geometry with diagrams. Ultimately, the best approach depends on the topic.” When students gravitate towards learning styles as the cause for struggling in a class, they are usually overlooking other reasons that may lead to a more effective learning experience. Regular one-on-one extra help, having to describe a new concept to someone who has already mastered it, diagnosing poorly learned prior content that complicates current acquisition, improving one’s focus in class, and adapting study approaches at home are but some of the many different strategies that may lead to more positive results.
If you are interested in learning more about studies on learning styles, here are a few suggestions. For those interested in an academic paper, this one (one of whose authors is the aforementioned Dr. Rohrer) was one of the earliest to question recent theories of learning styles; more recently, Dr. Rohrer also co-authored a potentially more accessible article on the topic. This TEDx Talk by Dr. Tesia Marshik, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, may be more amenable to those who prefer videos. Finally, Dr. Daniel Willingham, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia who produces very popular education-related tweets, books, and articles in the Washington Post, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that surveys learning style research.
Teaching and learning are two very complex processes. Because of this, it is all the more important not to complicate these endeavors even further with ideas that have not been validated by peer-reviewed research. Learning is often difficult. Let’s not make it more difficult by thinking that it cannot occur in situations where it is actually possible.