Learning styles: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Learning styles. I hear about them from my students, we teach them in our classes, and I see them as a variable in many research studies. So are they good? bad? What are they useful for?

Lets start out with the good. During a learner analysis it is good to know as much as possible about your learners. So a learning style inventory can be one of many pieces to the puzzle. However, I would never use it as the only piece and I would probably hold it as least important.

Now lets move to the bad. Designing curriculum based on learning styles has not been shown to improve learning. For instance, look at this study:

http://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv13692

Why are learning styles not good? Well lets say that 60% of my learners are visual (this is a common stat I see in the literature). What does that tell me to do with my instruction? Honestly, it does not tell me anything. There are a number of much more important things I need to consider and think about when developing instruction. First of all is information processing – how many concepts can a learner work with at one time in short term memory? Then I think about dual coding theory. I know that learners minds of comprised to two channels for learning: visual and auditory. Each has a certain capacity in working memory. Another concept in cognitive load. If I give a learner too much information they will start to forget because their working memory is overloaded. Then I think about the multimedia theories – learning (problem solving objectives) is greater when learners view a combination of visual and auditory content rather than just one of those individually. All of these theories, which have much positive research backing do not support learning styles. If 60% of my learners are visual, showing them only visuals will not increase their learning. In fact, only visuals would hurt their learning whereas a combination of visuals and auditory learning (such as video) has been shown to increase their learning. I realize I spoke very briefly about several theories which require a much deeper understanding but if you are interested about them, please feel free to look them up on my blog as I have written about all of them.

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