So what is the deal with learning styles?

15 10 2010

Learning styles…This concept is common knowledge to any teacher who has spent any amount of time in the classroom. With over 20 years at the helm (something I have been working on decreasing), I am very familiar with the concept of trying to identify the different ways students learn. The idea is that when this can be identified, we as teachers can do a better job providing meaningful methods of instruction to our students. Kinesthetic learner…Auditory learner…Visual learner…match the learning style and mode of instruction and the efficacy of the method increases as evidenced by greater success learning the material. An associated concept is that of multiple intelligences. While often misapplied in the context of learning styles, Gardner has made his mark on the world of education. Teachers often see how these MI play out in the learning process…or do they? This is the big question.

I bring this up only because I recently read two articles on two different topics which had a connecting piece- Learning Styles. The first article is titled “Linkages between motivation, self-efficacy, self-regulated learning and preferences for traditional learning environments of those with an online component”. This research paper uses correlation and factor analysis (PCA) to look at the following factors as related to student’s preferences of traditional learning environments over online learning environments: Engaged learning, Personal learning style, Familiarity, Augmented learning, Lifestyle fit and Course Requirement. One of the major findings was that students believed that traditional learning environments are better suited to adapting to their preferred learning styles than online learning environments. While I see all sorts of problems with this interpretation (what do students expect in a traditional learning environment, online environment, what online design types have students experienced?), one thing really jumped out at me. About “half of the students who preferred the traditional environment attributed their preference to its mesh with their personal learning styles”. Enter the second article read the day before…

The second article is titled Learning styles: Concepts and Evidence and was written by four cognitive scientists at U.C. San Diego, Washington University in St. Louis, University of South Florida and the U.C. Los Angeles. I mention this as they did the same in their paper and it reminded me of my internal conflict as I re-entered the world of academia studying cognitive science while I pursue my Ph.D. in Educational Computing and Cognitive Systems. As I made my way back to the classroom as an academic with over 20 years experience as a practitioner in the arts of teaching and learning, I found myself at odds with the cognitive science professors and my much younger grad student colleagues. You see, I “knew” that Howard Gardner’s M.I. was real yet the cognitive science community has a real hang up with his theory- almost to the point of calling it pseudo science. This was disturbing at first but as I proceeded through my studies, I found myself letting go of old ideas and reshaping my current view. It was this that prepared me for the findings of this study. Long story short, the four cognitive scientists reviewed the literature surrounding learning styles and found that when asked, children and adults will express a preference for a learning style related to the way information is presented to them. Yet, they found no empirical evidence that supported the higher efficacy of matching preferred learning style with method of instruction. In fact, they found evidence that was contradictory to the theory of learning styles.

So here is my dilemma…What can we really say about the preference of traditional learning environments over online (non-traditional) environments? What can we really say about matching learning style and method of instruction? What can we really say about using M.I. to inform our methods? How can we talk about using the concept of learning styles to improve the educational process if we are not even sure this concept is a reality?

Then it hits me. There has always been a problem with the way educators and learners have used the concept of learning styles as a way to improve learning. Think of it this way…You may really like milk chocolate. In fact, you may find that milk chocolate can be a motivator for you to accomplish things that are not really enjoyable for you. Now imagine that everything is milk chocolate. You start your morning with a glass of water (tastes like MC) then have eggs and bacon (both taste exactly the same-milk chocolate). You get to work and snack on peanuts (milk chocolate) to tide you over until lunch where you have a nice plate of spaghetti (chocolate) and a great spinach salad (more chocolate) and a bowl of cream of tomato soup (lots of milk chocolate)…you get the idea. As some point, you will wish for anything that does not taste like milk chocolate even if it is rutabaga with diced sardines.

It turns out that the misapplication of learning styles can have this effect. We reach a point of saturation caused by the cognitive overload experience by the overuse of similar instructional modes. Additionally, we develop our understanding in these isolated modes rather than leveraging the interactions between the different modalities. I liken this to our natural way of learning in the real world (as compared to the artificial learning environment of a classroom). Here we tend to use our sight, hearing and touch to explore things. At times we may also employ taste and smell. The idea is that we are utilizing all of our senses to explore and learn about the world around us. This integrated modality approach combined with feedback loops that help us check our understanding of the reality before us represents the natural way of learning. We employ kinesthetic learning when we touch and manipulate things, auditory learning when we listen to the effects of what we are doing and integrate that with what we see. When taste and smell are incorporated in the process, we find that we naturally integrate them with the other senses.

When we look at the natural process of learning, it seems we are multimodal learners. We integrate the different modes of learning (from the academic cannon- Auditory, Visual, Kinesthetic) seamlessly. Then why is it that when we enter the classroom we find ourselves (as teachers and learners) looking for learning styles among our students and within ourselves? Why is it that we will select one learning environment over another because we perceive it to be a better match for our learning style? More importantly, should we be using the concept of learning styles as a construct to improve the process of teaching and learning or are there better, more effective ways to improve the learning process? And finally, how should the concept of learning styles fit within the epistemological framework of a social constructivist or better yet, should they have a place at all?

While I don’t have these answers I do know this…I love it when my reading and reflective process creates more questions and cognitive conflict than it answers or solves. So here is to the mastication of ideas and the questions that may arise.

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2 responses

20 10 2010
Derrick Willard

I’ve been wrestling with all the “matching theory” stuff myself lately. Have you read this recent article?

http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

Willingham also has a short video on YouTube along the same lines:

11 01 2011
Jarred Stewart

I was intrigued by your argument on Learning Styles. This has been something I’ve struggled with in my classroom and district for awhile. While the idea of multiple intelligences has taken root, learning styles seems to creep up in professional development and planning sessions. Even has a new teacher, I distrusted the idea of categorizing students and tailoring curriculum to their supposed learning style. Forgive the simplicity (and the historical thinking) but I like to think how the first learners (ancient man) learned. Their learning would have included demonstrations for each other, hands-on trial and error, and some directional communication. Early human experience created a learning process effective enough to allow man to produce writing, weaponry, and discover the fundamentals of science. Gardner’s M.I. seems to fit more inline with what I see with students.

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