Learning styles: Good or Bad? Bad

Before anyone gets all worked about learning styles because they love them, remember, I love to pay devils advocate and question every single thing:) And I like to see hard quantitative data from solid studies that show an improvement in achievement or I get skeptical. I wrote a post on learning styles a while ago about how I felt they really do not make much sense from a teaching or curriculum development perspective as there are much more important things to consider. That post can be read here. I feel this way because they do not make sense when I consider other theories that do have tons and tons of experimental data to back them up. So I do question the importance of learning styles in curriculum design.

Anyway, I was discussing learning styles with my students this week and many of them seem surprised that I am not ‘all about’ learning styles and in fact do not find them very useful in my instruction. So I thought I would provide research that helps back up my point. I will be posting some peer reviewed research, sharing some opinions, and showing some websites that have all come to the same conclusions. Now before I do this, I believe learning preferences are fine and if they help with motivation for a particular kid or group, thats awesome. I also believe that motivation from that preference could improve learner achievement. Having said that, I recommend teachers teach to all learning styles and avoid focusing on just one of them. Instead I recommend that teachers focus on the way people learn through multiple representations (please see my blog post above to hear about this). Also, one thing all of these article discuss is that there is a lot of money in learning styles. The tests make money. So I wonder if that has a part in their popularity? Well look at the research and make your own conclusions. I will admit that I am only posting contradictory research here although the first meta analysis is not intended to be contradictory, it just happens that is what they found.

Here is one of the latest works that analyzed the 13 most popular learning style inventories:

Coffield, F, Moseley, D, Hall, E & Ecclestone, K 2004, Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review, LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London.

The part of this study that I found most interesting in addition to their conclusion that there is not clear research that learning style improve achievement was this table of learning style tests:

Thats pretty scary. How could you create a test without these types of validity evidences? I may be using these tests as an example of what not to do in my assessment class this summer:)

Here is a just a few other studies:

This study found that learners had a learning preference but that the preference did not affect achievement

Here is a blog post from Cathy Moore who is reviewing learning styles. Specifically she is examining:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3):105-119.

Who found that:

Studies are weak: “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.” “Meshing” refers to changing your teaching style to match a learning style. (p. 105)
Don’t spend time on something that isn’t proven: “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.” (p. 105)

Here is an article from the Chronicle about learning styles. The main point I took from this article is Kolb’s analysis. Kolb is probably the most well known learning styles theorist: “…Mr. Kolb also says that the paper’s bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students’ particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full “learning cycle,” without regard to their students’ particular styles.)”

Here is another article from change magazine

And finally I leave you with a video from a cognitive psychologist arguing that learning styles do not exist. And before you see his video I suggest you look at his bio/cv. He is a professor at UVA and here is his bio:

“Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is an Associate Editor of Mind, Brain, and Education. He is also the author of Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass) and When Can You Trust the Experts? (Jossey-Bass). His writing on education has been translated into ten languages.” There is more info about him at this website here

Posted in Instructional Design, K-12, Research and tagged .