Have you ever noticed how variable the depth of learning is amongst students in your classroom – even when you have students with very similar backgrounds and levels of preparation? Perhaps you’ve looked for patterns or specific characteristics that might help explain this variability. After all, if you can find consistent and predictable behavioral patterns, you might discover the key to motivating and assisting those who are struggling with coursework. One useful tool for doing just that is to identify each student’s preferred “learning style,” a method that groups students based on their preferred means of learning. Interestingly, this very topic was the focus of a HAPS –L discussion forum this past summer. Following is a brief summary of the main points of that discussion supplemented with a little additional information.
A 2004 book by Coffield, et al. (1) identified 71 different learning style models, most of which are variations of two particular general themes. One of these themes is psychologically-oriented and looks at how individuals make sense of their personal experiences. Examples include David Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) and Zubin Austin’s Health Professionals Inventory of Learning Styles (H-PILS). The second major theme focuses more on neurological sensory information processing. Examples include the right-brain vs. left-brain dominance tests and Neil Fleming’s Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) inventory, a tool that indicates a person’s preferences for sensory modalities that most smoothly facilitate the mastering of new information.
Will I be able to definitively resolve the central issues of learning styles in this post? Of course not. As we all know, it is notoriously difficult to “prove” anything, even without the additional handicap of measuring psychological processes through self-report. In my opinion, it’s not worth the necessary paper or electrons to engage in a heated debate over this, especially since the take-home message is pretty much the same regardless of the outcome.
Even those who strongly advocate the use of learning styles are aware of the limitations of each specific model and the instruments used to categorize individual learners. Furthermore, the results of every inventory are full of questions of validity, reliability, and stability. In other words, what does it really mean for someone to be an “assimilator,” or a “kinesthetic learner,” or “right brained?” Are people with one tendency actually incapable of learning in any other way? Are these tendencies fixed, or can one improve or broaden native capabilities or preferences with enough effort and exposure to new types of learning? The questions are endless, and addressing them is beyond the scope of this article; however, Edutopia (2015) has an overview of the various opinions and positions held by education leaders on learning styles: http://www.edutopia.org/article/learning-styles-real-and-useful-todd-finley.
Since 2008 (2) rigorous educational research has not shown that specific instruction targeted toward a student’s learning style produces any statistically significant improvement in measured learning as compared to a non-preferred learning style. Yet the debate over the usefulness/uselessness of learning styles persists.
As far as course design is concerned, “universal” instructional design already encourages the use of multiple delivery modes to both present and assess student understanding of the most important ideas in our content. Using multiple forms of representing and expressing key information automatically helps students find at least one point of entry into the content. So if preferred learning styles are real facilitators of learning, universal design already addresses them to a large degree. Additionally, multiple presentation and assessment modalities provide reinforcement and a variety of possible retrieval cues which should help everyone – regardless of learning style.
One big positive offered by learning styles is that they are a non-threatening way to engage students in conversations about their learning. Many students do not routinely participate in systematic self-reflection, but we can encourage them to talk about how they learn and what it means to demonstrate their own understanding of a subject by using easy-to-understand terminology found in the learning styles inventory. As long as we don’t affix permanent labels to our students, which in effect “excuses” them from mastering the material, learning styles can provide students with insight into their own learning and offer a source of concrete strategies for engaging with course material.
- 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.
- Pashler, H., McDanierl, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3):105-119.