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Learning Styles: not scientifically proven?

I ran into an article on the New York Times website (in the "Views" section, but still...), entitled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" []; it addressed many of the issues we've seen so far in these modules, including the effectiveness of changing the settings in which teaching/learning take place, as well as the importance of testing.

Even more intriguing to me, however, was one of the studies cited in this article: originally published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest in December 2008, this review of previously published studies calls into question the existence of the learning styles of which we've heard so much.

The abstract of the study:

The problem: finding scientific evidence for these different learning styles, as established through experiment.

The conclusion: "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.

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, 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. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately."
[Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. "Learning Style: Concepts and Evidence." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 09.03 (December 2008): 105-119. Print.]

Intriguing, no? If the evidence for these multiple learning styles is merely anectdotal, that does not necessarily mean that these learning styles do not exist? It does take a considerable leap of faith, however, to be structuring our courses based on them. As the study says, more rigorously scientific, experimental study is warranted. There is the possibility, however, that such studies would prove that these multiple learning styles, as we call them, are the outward expression of some other, as yet unknown phenomenon.


Hi Scott,
Thank you for the excellent references and discussion on learning styles. After working with Dunn & Dunn (the leaders in learning style research) I developed a real appreciation for their understanding of how individuals take in new content.
In the meantime I have been researching the assessment of multiple intelligences. After 25 years of research I have created an assessment that identifies the 3 dominant intelligences of a person. So we assess the entire class of students identify the 3 dominants for each and then create instructional strategies for the individuals after we group them according to intelligences. We then have them work in their non-dominant areas to show them how they can acquire new knowledge in those areas as well even though those are not their intelligence preferences.
As a result of this research I have changed my thinking more to learning preferences based upon dominant intelligences rather than learning styles. So I am following your thinking and the supportive information you provided. Just as we have preferences for different foods or cars we have different preferences for taking in information. This does not mean we are locked into one style but can acquire new information through a variety of different mediums.
Even after all the research that has been done both in the medical and educational communities we still know very little about how the brain functions and people learn. So we need to continue to be creative and discover additional ways of getting our message across to our students, while we continue our research.

I like in your last sentence the part that says "as yet unknown phenomenon.". A lot of the learning process is still a mystery that we need to explore as we teach because there are many different variables that come into play to impact the learning of our students.

I want to know what happened to the days when I was in college and instructors delivered content regardless of individual preference. How sensitive has our society gotten when we must tailor every lesson for each individual learning style? This takes a lot of work, which I don’t really mind, but at the end of the day it doesn’t seem to help.

For example, after reading one of these CEE topics I decided to try a hands-on experiment with my Physical Anthropology class that would appeal to Kinesthetic and Visual learners. I had my students create DNA molecules out of candy and toothpicks. I gave them explicit instructions on how to assemble it along with a detailed diagram to model their molecule on. I also showed them the model I had created, and they were allowed to use it for reference.

It had food, it had fun, it caused cavities . . . All students seemed engaged. I thought this was sure to make a difference. Even working in groups and off of very detailed instructions, there were so many mistakes. So I walked around and helped them adjust toothpicks for appropriate hydrogen bond location, etc. At the end of the time, I walked around and every student said they understood the double helix structure of a DNA molecule.

One week later I asked them to draw a molecule for the Midterm exam review. Only 3 people in a class of 33 got the answer correct. I corrected all the wrong answers—BY HAND—handed it back to the students and reminded them they would need to draw a DNA molecule on the midterm exam.

Care to guess how many students missed that question on the Midterm?

I spent so much valuable class time trying to help kinesthetic and visual learners, and I got a pathetic outcome.

When I was in college, I went to lecture and the instructor delivered content, no hands on learning, and sometimes no fun Powerpoint, and I had to be responsible and learn the information. If I didn’t understand it, I had to teach myself. I was responsible for going in for help if I did not get it. I also had classes with 300 students, and all of us managed.

Why are we trying to treat these students with kid gloves when the results seem to be marginal? Why not just go back to the old ways and tell them to put on their big boy pants and deal with it?

Thank you for your feedback, Dr. Meers.

I think that, by virtue of the kinds of personalities that are drawn to education in the first place, our tendency is to do anything to make sure all of our students "get", and, hopefully, master the material we are presenting to them. After all, their success is our success.

So, when presented with this model of "learning styles" and specific intelligences, we want to tailor our teaching to each and every one of them. As I've lamented in previous comments, however, this presents a potential multiplication of our workload by...4, 5 times?

If, instead, we take your approach, accepting that indiviuals may have a preferred learning mode, but are perfectly capable of learning in more traditional modes as well (with a little legwork on the students' parts), then perhaps "learning facilitators" and students can meet somewhere in the middle. Education is, after all, a collaborative process, rather than an act of spoon-feeding...

And as for the praise of "as yet unkown phenomenon": thanks. It's one of the concepts that has always stuck with me from my own psychology degree: the idea of phenomenon vs. epiphenomenon. We may observe and be able to measure something that is happening; but the true phenomenon may be something deeper, something that the "epiphenomenon" is just the outward display of. Perhaps this is what's in play in the learning styles debate.

I hear ya. As a visual communications professional, it stands to reason that I am a visual thinker. Yet I'm perfectly comfortable reading a book, listening to a lecture, taking notes, hearing a song, interpreting a graph, or role-playing a scenario (well, maybe a little less comfortable with that last one). For me, in the end, the reward is the knowledge obtained; and I will do the work necessary to obtain that knowledge if it is of use to me and worth the work.

In all of this discussion, we have left out one of the more obvious causes of students' failure to learn: some of them just don't want to learn. Whether they are in school just "get their piece of paper", or were lured in by persuasive marketing and aggressive admissions agents, or were pressured by family or friends...

For some, the failure to learn the course's subject matter is in service of a larger lesson learned: that they don't actually want to be in school. It's a tough lesson, and an expensive one, but for some it's just as valuable a piece of knowledge...And may even result in something more valuable than knowledge: wisdom.

I too have had problems when trying to incorporate non traditional learning activities that tap into visual and kinesthetic learners into my curriculum. I teach psychology at a school that mostly has design based programs. In an attempt to bring in the visual and kinesthetic learners that designers tend to be I asked my students to create a visual representation of a mental illness. In order to do this they would need to use their creativity to visually represent the symptoms and then create a picture or a sculpture, etc.

Unfortunately the results were disappointing. Most students didn't even do the assignment. Granted, a very small handful that put in the effort created amazing projects. After a year of getting dismal results on the assignment, I decided to instead go the route of a traditional compare and contrast paper. The sumbission rate increased by 100%. And the effort increased by 50%.

I was really excited to incorporate the visual and kinesthetic learning styles into the assignments and was disappointed that it didn't work for my students.

Hi Scott,
You hit on a key factor and that is the hunger for knowledge. You, I and many others are willing to use other learning avenues to get the knowledge we want. Sadly for some students the effort is not worth it nor is the opportunity to attend school. They don't want to be there and are not willing to expend the energy needed to acquire the competencies of their field.

Hi Cynthia,
This is so disappointing to hear. It makes me wonder if the students are so attuned to just putting together papers that asking them to use their visual and kinesthetic preferences was taking them out of their comfort zone too much. By knocking out a paper they didn't have to think very much and was able to provide a product that meets the course requirements. If that is the case they are not going to enjoy the benefits of being creative when they are in their design careers.

Although I have found that teaching to different learning styles has been successful, I also found that it was up to those students to make it work.

I touch upon the various learning styles in my class, I even throw in some onomonopia to help them remember certain concepts. On the first day I like to get introductions from my students, and I survey their learning styles so I can try to assist all students in their success. I have a student who comes to this class every day, but does not study outside of class. He struggles through the assignments and the exams because he is not putting in the work to learn. I can stand up in the front of my class, touching on all the learning styles, but it is ultimately up to the student to put in the work.

I tell my students that education is a balancing act. I will hold up my end of the bargain, but they have to balance it out with effort on their end. For some students, this hits home and makes a difference in their approach towards their education.

Hi Margaret,
You make a very good point about student responsibility. It is up to them to put forth the effort to acquire the needed knowledge and skills. As you say you will hold up your end of the bargain but so do they if they are going to be successful.

While the existence of learning styles can not be proven with certainty, I still make sure that I disseminate information using more than one method.

Thank you for posting this NYTimes article. I also really appreciate the response of Dr. Meers.
I want to add that it is not only important to meet students in the middle (with regard to having to learn in a non-preferred style) but also to give personal examples of how preferences work in your own learning. By using your own experience, you can restate that even if your preferred method isn't an option--you still have to get the work done.

Good comments and good reminder about the need for students to expand their learning abilities even when not in their preferred areas. They will have to do that when they are in the work world so they need to have skills that will will support them when they have to.

Dr. Gary Meers

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