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Doubt about learning styles

[This is my column for the Local Living section of Feb. 11, 2010.]

If you are in a mischievous mood and want to get a rise out of your favorite teachers or principals, send them a copy of "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence," in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9, No. 3, December 2008. (Actually, it came out in December 2009, but for a reason understood only by academics in the timeless search for truth, its official publication date was 12 months previous.)

Here is my summary of the 15-page paper: Learning styles are hogwash.

It’s not quite that bad. The four authors agree that "people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information." Some of us consider ourselves visual learners. Some of us think we learn best if we use our hands: draw, make models, stack coins. The authors conclude, however, that "at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice."

Many Washington area educators believe in the power of learning styles. Some don’t. When University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham saw a reader of Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog say the influence of learning styles was obvious, he noted that "for a couple of thousand years it wasn’t obvious to physicians that bloodletting didn’t work." Former Virginia state school board member Andrew Rotherham said the study doesn’t mean that all students should be taught the same way, but "it does sadly illustrate how often many things that everybody knows in education turn out to be less certain or bulletproof."

That clicking sound is me going through many unhappy e-mails from organizations that make money from the wide acceptance of learning-styles theory. I found a large assortment of learning-styles Web sites: success-in-mind.org, expandingyourhorizons. org, funderstanding.com and mindtools.com. One promised to determine my style in two minutes. When I refused to pay $8.95 for the result after I took the test, I got an e-mail saying I could still get it for $4.95.

The problem with learning-styles theory, the psychologists who wrote the paper say, is that it has rarely been tested in a randomized, scientific way. Hal Pashler of the University of California at San Diego; Mark McDaniel of Washington University in St. Louis; Doug Rohrer of the University of South Florida; and Robert A. Bjork of the University of California at Los Angeles, examined several studies, looking for those that followed this routine: Divide students by their learning styles and randomly assign each to a teacher using one of a number of teaching styles. After the teaching is done, have each student take the same final exam. Teaching aligned with specific learning styles is deemed to be effective if students of a certain style learn more under instruction targeted to that style.

The authors found that studies that claimed certain learning styles benefited from similar teaching styles were not rigorously randomized, and studies that embraced the scientific method showed no significant advantage for students taught by their preferred teaching style.

Still, the authors said, many of us find the theory irresistible because we like "to be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals." And when study areas differ, learning-styles theory has merit. "For instance," they said, "the optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual-spatial materials."

If the authors are right, the real quandary is we have lost a precious excuse for our own incompetence. Prepare the tax form? Fix that light switch? Well, you know, dear, I was never taught in the proper way to do that.


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By Jay Mathews  | February 10, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  learning styles are hogwash, learning styles don't help teachers, learning styles research, reaction against learning styles  
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Comments

As I said when Valerie wrote about this very topic in her Answer Sheet blog, if the research shows that learning styles is a load of crock, then I will accept that. However, my classroom is a lot more fun for everyone involved when I present material in a variety of ways. I teach elementary general music, and for any given concept I have a range of activities that includes singing, dancing, moving, games, listening, playing instruments, and writing. My students are more engaged, and they have plenty of different chances to master the same concept. So while there might not be different learning styles, I see no reason to stop teaching as if there were. For my students and me, it works.

Posted by: kacd | February 10, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

This learning style business never made any sense to me, so I'm delighted to learn that academic research indicates I was on the right track.

However, I'm certainly in favor of variety - in school and everywhere else. What's important is that this learning style methodology is not erroneously presented as essential for student achievement, and teachers are not forced to use it and then rated down on their evaluations and even fired here in DC because they do not incorporate various learning styles into all their lessons.

Posted by: efavorite | February 10, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

While I'm pleased to see you get around to this piece of research, Jay, I think you may have buried the lede. In fact, I think you neglected to include it at all.

Learning styles orthodoxy has too often led to an insistence that teachers differentiate their lessons to accomodate alleged learning styles. As your recent post on the evaluation of Washington, DC teacher Mr. Goldfarb showed, some teachers even risk a poor evaluation if they *don't* do so. So we're holding teachers accountable for pseudoscience.

(True story: I once had an assistant principal who insisted that all of my lesson plans must include differentiation for all learning styles. An average of eight lessons a day, times five learning styles, times five days a week. I ignored the "requirement.")

As kacd's comment illustrates, teachers hear "there's no such thing as learning styles" and immediately and incorrectly jump to the conclusion that there's no point in varying their teaching style. That's not what this means. Good teachers vary their pitches, keeping their students alert and engaged. But the reason to do so is because the material lends itself to a a particular approach. It's not because this kid is a visual learner, and that one only learns by working with his hands and we're failing to do our jobs by catering to each "learning style."

The sooner THAT notion dies a well-deserved death, the better.

Posted by: rpondiscio | February 10, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, rpondiscio, for implying that I'm jumping to a conclusion. I teach that way, as you say, because it keeps students alert and engaged, and it leads to results. However, I would venture a guess that people who haven't spent much time in a classroom in the last 10 or 20 or 40 years would jump to that very conclusion, that all teaching would be of the talking head at the front of the room. Frankly, I don't care what methods (within reason) are used, as long as they work. I just ask to be given the freedom to choose which styles work best at the time. So really, I think you and I are advocating for the same thing.

Posted by: kacd | February 10, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Here's a working link to Strauss's article on the subject: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/daniel-willingham/the-big-idea-behind-learning.html

Very interesting - I hadn't seen it before.
Using reader comments as a guide, the theory is quite ingrained and I think many will resist giving it up, evidence or no. It fits very nicely with the popular idea that everyone can learn everything equally well, natural abilities or differing experiences notwithstanding, as long as they have an effective teacher.

Posted by: efavorite | February 10, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

It may have taken a couple thousand years to realize bloodletting doesn't work for everyone, "However, in the case of hemochromatosis, which is now recognized as the most common genetic, or inherited, disorder, frequent bloodletting has become an essential, and life-saving procedure."

If we heal in different ways because we are different, surely we might learn and can be taught in different and not "proper" ways too.

Posted by: BarneyURspecial | February 11, 2010 3:14 AM | Report abuse

Nice try Barney but we heal in different ways because someone went out and proved that there was some reason to heal in a different way. The gist of the paper is that that the evidence - that is evidence that approximates the standard of quality one might find in an academic journal not associated with education - in favor of learning styles is non-existent.

Using your example then, medicine ought to be based on pseudo-science and practiced as a function of fashion. The fact that *is* how education is currently done, to a significant extent, explains much about the shortcomings of American, public education.

Posted by: allenm1 | February 11, 2010 6:09 AM | Report abuse

"...have each student take the same final exam." Was the exam designed to incorporate elements of the learning styles? (Which begs other questions of methodology) If not, can't take the same exam because exams are also implements of "learning style".

To efavorite: That might be because the "style" used in school is one that is comfortable for you.

Posted by: altaego60 | February 11, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

I saw your article, Jay, under another heading this morning referring to your Thursday print edition and commented there. So, I will briefly summarize.
I worry that the learning style most neglected, when teachers are taxed with incorporating all styles, is essentially the "traditional" style. Students who do benefit from reading the textbook and listening to the teacher are often neglected, in my opinion. Students who prefer to work independently are also at times set aside, in favor of group projects and group learning.

Oh, and here is the article you refer to since your link goes to a "page unfound"
http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf

Posted by: researcher2 | February 11, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Jay's other version of his article, to which I referred to:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/09/AR2010020902553.html

Posted by: researcher2 | February 11, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

The study didn't say it didn't work. It stated that there hasn't been research studies done yet to prove that it works. What would you think if studies later proved that it works?

Posted by: ericpollock | February 11, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

ericpollock, here is an interesting quote from the actual study (found on page 112) where they did find some studies that they found to be methodologically sound:
"These studies, which we believe are methodologically strong,
provide no support for the learning-styles hypothesis (or its
popular specific version, the meshing hypothesis). As mentioned
previously, however, it would clearly be a mistake to label these
negative results as a conclusive refutation of the learning-styles
hypothesis in general. Further research modeled on the work of
Massa and Mayer (2006) may bring to light assessments paired
with interventions that do meet our criteria. But at present, these
negative results, in conjunction with the virtual absence of
positive findings, lead us to conclude that any application of
learning styles in classrooms is unwarranted"

So, there are sound studies that prove it "doesn't work" and none that are sound and prove it does, which led to their conclusion.

I had assumed that there were studies that proved learning styles worked, otherwise why all the devotion to it, and why are teachers taxed with incorporating all styles? I found the study very interesting, and wonder how education "fads" start, when so little evidence existed for this particular trend.

I guess I fear the "entertainment" value of learning styles has resulted in all classrooms using them, without evidence that they actually benefit retention of what has been taught. I would love to see studies that do indeed demonstrate retention (learning) utilizing learning styles, however in the meantime, we can't ignore what this study has shown.

Posted by: researcher2 | February 11, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

altaego60 says, “That might be because the "style" used in school is one that is comfortable for you.”

No, because I experienced many styles in school, as I think most students did, depending on the subject matter and task. Also, like everyone else, I have certain aptitudes that make some subjects easier or harder for me to master. Aptitudes/abilities are not the same things as styles.

The reason learning style didn’t make sense to me was just a hunch, based on my own experience and the anecdotal observation that adults frequently described themselves as visual learners. Of course, I thought, everyone with eyes learns by seeing. It wasn’t until I read the well-designed and executed academic research that knew it didn’t make sense – based on empirical evidence.

Another hunch I have is that most people, even highly educated people who have studied research methods, don’t understand the implications of research and don’t use it enough in their reasoning. They go on hunches instead, or popular knowledge. I’d like to see the evidence for that.

Posted by: efavorite | February 11, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Interesting article today, Jay. As a former teacher of students who could not rely on at least one of their senses to use for their "learning style" (some students had more than one handicapping condition), it is interesting to read that there are no studies to empirically support the use of "learning styles".

I believe that learning styles often get confused in the mix of teacher styles and personalities as well. A teacher who generally relies on "auditory learning" for students (who may or may not be auditory learners) yet is monotonous and dry, might have different results than a teacher whose voice patterns and styles are more exciting.

All in all, I think it's pretty muddy.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | February 11, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

Yo, IMPACT Czar Jason Kamras:

Are you paying attention?

Posted by: Nemessis | February 11, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Here’s a project for you Jay - do some follow-up on Johnson O'Connor (1891- 1973) “American psychometrician, researcher, and educator… most remembered as a pioneer in the study of aptitude testing and as an advocate for the importance of vocabulary. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_O'Connor

Wikpedia goes on to say that “O’Connor became one of the first researches to offer documentation that aptitudes are in fact innate. For example, one who is mathematically inclined can learn much more quickly and easily about mathematics than can one whose aptitudes in this area are low. Similarly, if one were to take two groups, one that possessed the aptitude for finger dexterity and one that did not, with practice, both groups performance would improve, but the group that possessed the aptitude would continue to outperform the other despite identical training.”

And this: “O’Connor stumbled upon an unexpected discovery: A person’s vocabulary level was the best single aptitude for predicting occupational success in every area. Furthermore, vocabulary is not innate, and can be acquired by everybody. [3] Because acquisition of vocabulary was not, in O'Connor's view, determined by innate aptitudes, it became a major focus of his later writings. O'Connor considered vocabulary augmentation a major key to unlocking human potential.”

Has further research been done on O’Conner’s work? If so, how has it come out and how is it being used?

Posted by: efavorite | February 11, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Just a quick plea on behalf of college profs., especially for intro. "survey" courses. Few of us have students build dioramas, do group activities, or are otherwise trained in differentiated teaching approaches for college students. Rather, we hope and expect that students will read the text (and supplemental readings) listen to and participate in the lectures and, for much of their assessment, answer questions and/or solve problems on a final exam.

Use any teaching method you like, but remember that the path to a decent job and standard of living is generally through college and that it would be nice if students entered prepared to adapt to college profs. teaching styles.

Posted by: mct210 | February 11, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I taught high school mathematics for 38 years. I now work as a mathematics Curriculum Coach for the system. I always taught in a traditional lecture/practice/review/test method.
My State Exam Scores were some of the best in my system. I have always contended that the push for teaching with different "learning styles" was hype. Thank-you for validating my thoughts.

Posted by: shannonwhitehead | February 11, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

There's been little change in the tradition of psychology and education psychology of testing for the presence of a difference and ignoring its magnitude. Once a difference has been found ---run with it for all the celebrity the researcher can grab.

The second part of the error is to confuse diversity with its connection to people who supposedly can be identified as being of a particular type. A good swim coach will not insist on just one way of learning how to improve a swim stroke; she'll use different images, different explanations, and run through several approaches until most of the swimmers are on a learning path.

Finally, the greatest support for belief in learning styles comes from laymen who no longer wish to learn most anything from explicit rules and instructcion; but instead want to learn from illustration or repeated examples. That's why appliances come with videotapes, DVD's, and now Youtube videos. Nothing wrong with illustrations, but not wishing to parse text and having no patience to concentrate and listen is not the same thing as being "a visual learner." Educators, this blogger / columnist included, want kids to be capable of abstract and symbolic reasoning, as from courses in algebra. But, we ourselves are frankly too busy or lazy about following abstraction. And so we support "learning styles".

Posted by: incredulous | February 11, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

A very elevated discussion. I learned a lot. I will have to research that O'Connor person. Thank you.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 11, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm- sounds like you never heard of Johnson O'Conner, Jay.

I couldn't find anything negative about him on the net (punching in a few key words) but I recall hearing that his aptitude testing lost favor because it states that there are innate differences among people. There are Johnson O'Conner testing centers all over the country, including one in downtown washington.

http://www.jocrf.org/testing_centers/index.html

Posted by: efavorite | February 11, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

I was in mental health for 27 years and returned to education 10 years ago. "learning styles" is but another bunch of pseduo-science fostered by an educational system that blames everything on the teacher. So-called "research based instructional strategies" simply means that someone can find a few studies that agree and, if no one looks very deeply at, say, what population was actually tested or what was actually examined, it passes as "scientific research". The universities pander this stuff, especially as it realates to special education, as a feature of the pandering to the public and politicians that education does generally. It is all aimed at placating the public who votes and the current convenient scapegoat is the teacher. Everything is the teacher's fault. That way no parent (insert voter) gets mad and things like IDEA and No Child Left Behind get passed off as "researched".

I often say that the approach when I went to public school was "No Child Left WITH a Behind"! Children cannot be "made" to do anything anymore. Everything a kid doesn't get is the teacher's fault. They tell us all the time. When I returned to education, I had to get another Master's degree and certification in special education. I asked, during my program, why it was, since they hawk this nonsense so much, why I was never asked or tested by them to ascertain MY learning style, it being "research based" and all. They just stammered around awhile and told me how "intersting" the question was.
I would hate to see education become the abusive, violent experience I had but we knew who ran the schools and parents didn't hide behind the accusation that suddenly all the teacher's are incompetent and lie about their students.

There is a mathmatical formula for assessing the reading level of a portion of text called its "readability". There are calculators on line that will allow you to type in some text and get a reading level. I typed in a paragraph and got a reading level of grade 11.32. Almost senior high. The text was from my Mother's 4th grade McGuffey reader. "Nuff said.

Posted by: gnichols1205 | February 11, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Interesting - Dan Pink, the guy who wrote “Drive” also wrote about his experience going through the O’Conner aptitude testing in 1995. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/01/goodat.html

It was originally developed for use in industry and career choice and the test isn’t administered to anyone under age 14. Still, the concept of measuring abilities has implications for education.

Posted by: efavorite | February 11, 2010 7:34 PM | Report abuse

For me, a teacher, differentiation of instruction for different learning styles is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I know that I personally absorb information better if someone orally explains it to me or delivers a lecture, as opposed to reading a passage about it. So I can understand that different folks have different strokes. I have no problem with incorporating listening, reading, music, performance, writing, pair and group work, role play, manipulatives, etc so all students can have a chance to use whatever methods work best for them.
This is not, however, a panacea. What I have noticed in many high school classrooms is a focus more on "engaging" lessons through this type of differentiation and less on building the students' stamina for reading, writing, and listening, which is what they are going to have to do in college (through self-discipline). Our kids have trouble taking notes, listening to a lecture, and reading essays or even short stories in class or on exams. This is not preparing them for college or for many college-launched careers that rely on more standardized modes of communication. And if a student is good with their hands and likes to work with their hands, we don't offer enough vocational training to really give them an opportunity to learn by doing what works for them. We are just focused on making students "college ready," but we are ignoring what college instruction really looks like once the students get there.
Also, it's not like the state assessments in MD differentiate for learning styles. We can let the students make up songs about what they learn during a lesson if that's what works for them, but come time for MSA and HSA, it's read questions and long passages, bubble in the answer, and on MSA write a little bit. Individual portfolios are a great way to show what individual students have learned (making use of their individual learning styles and aptitudes), but state assessments don't do this. They only care if the student knows the information or can perform the skill in a context almost exclusively based on reading.

Posted by: dudakadud | February 12, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

A significant goal of school-based education has always been not just to prepare students for more of it, but for independence from the classroom for additional learning: ie. "learning to learn."

Now, that graphics and video are omnipresent and accessible on-demand, text-based explanation and the abstraction of rules may become a smaller part of adult-life instructional modalities.

Readers here have already seen a parallel process to replacement of argument by graphic illustration in the replacement of essays, papers and lectures by the PowerPoint (tm) slide show consisting of no more than bulleted talking points on computer-generated decorated stationary.

But, I wonder when classroom evaluators are dazzled by truly fluent PowerPoint presentations --truly multi-media -- whether they then look at student work to see how much or little has been learned that sticks. I'd say the same of the instruction Jay might get from a Youtube video clip on replacement of a light switch.

Posted by: incredulous | February 12, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

The answer to learning styles is one word: Awareness. That teachers need to be aware of diversity of learning styles is a given of their professional acumen. Perhaps more important, teachers need to make students aware that if they are inclined toward a particular mode of learning, they need to learn--in whatever style--to adapt to whatever is being presented to them. If they are too apathetic to try to do that, well, another minimum wage candidate is born.

Posted by: rbl4431 | February 12, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

My own classroom research on learning styles did demonstrate their value not only for student achievement, but also for classroom discipline.

One feature we added to our learning styles project was that in addition to assessing each student's learning style we also posted information on the classroom walls that identified each student and described his or her preferred learning style.

We engaged the students in discussions about what the styles meant and what they could do to help each get the most out of their time in the classroom.

These postings and discussions led to a significant reduction in classroom problems that distracted students from learning including teasing, taunting, making fun of others, poking, throwing things, disruptive comments.

Much more classroom time was spent directly on learning and almost none on classroom discipline.

Posted by: rcarr1 | February 13, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews,

I spend most of my time criticizing you. However, I nearly did a dance of joy when I read this article. It sheds light on a number of issues.

First it shows the folly in much education research. Most research in education is research in name only. As stated in the article most of what is taken as gospel in education doesn't stand up to real scientific study. That's because most "research" in education begins as someone's grad school thesis or dissertation. I should know, I'm working on one now! And like most folks getting a part time advanced degree I began not with a question, but with an answer. Most of us trying to finish our degrees already know what we want the result of our "research" to be. We want it to justify something we have already been doing so that we can show our way is the best way.

Second, your article shows one of the biggest problems in education. The lemming like rush to adapt whatever the newest and greatest idea that comes along. The folks who make decisions are quick to adopt whatever foolish new scheme so that they can be "innovative". (This one-lunch debacle comes to mind).

The fact of the matter is that research in education is often a fools errand. It is nearly impossible to create a true controlled environment in education research. The number of variables beyond the researchers control are innumerable making most education "research" anecdotal at best.

Posted by: rsburton78 | February 13, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Because most teachers aren't researchers I feel we've been reluctant to challenge the learning style 'research' that's been shoveled upon us for so long. Many of us have our own 'research base' of years in the classroom, and it seems that 'evidence' should count for as much, if not more, than a research paper. I've often wondered about the existence of 'research' that proves differentiating for learning styles works, and this paper seems to confirm my fears.

As rpondicio stated so aptly, it is difficult if not impossible to differentiate every aspect of a lesson for multiple learning styles. I've often joked that while using 'sticks and stones' to solve algebra problems may help tactile learners, we, um, have evolved from cavemen to wear we can see stuff, do it in our heads, and put it on paper with our fingers and opposable thumbs. Heaven help the teacher who has multiple subjects to teach, and lesson planning soon consumes their time like a computer calculating the exact value of pi.

During a professional development when the presenter says 'the research says,' few if any teachers say 'show me the research.' I have always been skeptical of education research because it's so difficult to manage all the variables involved in classroom teaching to prove anything definitively, as rsburton78 stated. I'm more curious about how much 'airtime' this study gets, or will the education intelligentsia try to treat it like those hacked e-mails that exposed the global-warming cultists. I'm pretty sure, though, that there are a lot of teachers who read Mr. Mathew's article and said, 'Damn, I could have told you that long time ago."

Posted by: pdfordiii | February 14, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I still insist that the biggest problem with education today is that it is being run by educators.

Posted by: richardwcalvert | February 15, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

The biggest problem in education today is poor parenting.

Posted by: rsburton78 | February 15, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

My wife and I share a combined 83 years as public educators and have noticed the different ways students learn. Some of our students seem to learn better by listening. Others seem to learn by looking. And others seem to learn better by using a combination of sensory modalities. I guess the "learning style" issue is another way of saying some students use a variety of sensory modes to learn. A perceptive teacher notices which mode a student seems to use most effectively to learn and individualizes instruction capitalizing on that mode.

Posted by: mywizardofis | February 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay et al,
Great discussion. Do we need empirical evidence to prove we are visual learners? Prehistoric cave paintings are early examples used by visual learners. Does this necessarily equate to a learning style? (Imprinting and birds?) I think it's interesting that learning styles are a topic while the winter olympics are occurring. Olympic athletes have proven the value of eidetic imaging and muscle memory--vividly picturing oneself performing a task and then repeatedly doing it. (Homework?) If any of the readers have had to refer to a visual to assemble a chest of drawers, wire an outlet, hit a baseball, or repair something on a car, then we all know the value of a visual aid and learning by doing. Coaches know that showing athletes a visual of a perfect swing is only part of the learning experience--athletes must do. So perhaps in many instances we are all visual learners. In education teachers model or provide a visual for their students and then allow time for guided practice, i.e. make a miter joint, do a math problem on a smartboard, write a sample essay, read with expression, and etc. followed by guided practice. Perhaps the better question or research about learning styles is to be found in continued studies of the brain and how we learn.

Posted by: southsidemike1 | February 16, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I have been teaching forever. THe more ways information can be delivered to students, the more they will learn. Whether you lable it "learning styles" or or anything else, no one way is the best. Most people already know what works best for them--so if you want to rename it "what works best for you" instead of learning modalities or anything else, that will work just fine.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | February 17, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I have been a school psychologist for 30 years and have assessed many students and have observed many teachers. First of all, people may dismiss the existance of learning styles, but it is easy to talk about cognitive styles that are demonstrated by individual cognitive profiles on comprehensive intelligence tests. A student who shows high scores in one area (and factor analysis has confirmed the presence of different intellectual factors) and low scores in another area (such as high nonverbal and low verbal scores) obviously has a different cognitive style than a student who has the opposite pattern. However, TEACHING effectively for different cognitive styles has never been demonstrated empirically and is not worth the trouble. That's because people are not one-dimensional. Unless a person is blind or deaf or restricted in sensory input for other reasons, no one has a single learning style to the exclusion of other ways of processing information. Than, there is also the fact that certain types of information is naturally transmitted in certain ways. How can one appreciate a dance by having someone describe it (except in perhaps the most flowery visual terms). Does anyone really appreciate music that's been described by a reviewer? Even though it is not a good idea to tailor an eduational presentation so that it appeals to different learning styles, that doesn't negate the reality of cognitive/learning styles. Teachers who teach using a variety of methods that appeal to different "styles" are more effective for obvious reasons: their presentation is more interesting and informative. But, it is silly to write a lesson that is supposed to "cover" 5 learning styles.
Learning/Cognitive styles are real. I can not remember colors and have a real problem with retaining images. I have to ask a lot of questions and read a lot to understand things. Other people fall asleep when you talk to them or they attempt to read about something, but they can look at an image and tell you everything about it later.
If you don't "know" (intuitively or explicitly) your own cognitive/learning style as an adult, then you're probably not a very effective learner.

Posted by: gtcbob | February 17, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

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