FAIL: Mythbusting about learning styles

Nothing’s more frustrating to those of us who’ve done graduate research in a university science lab than coming to realize that evidence is being ignored in favor of a pet project or a particular ideology.

In a blog post for Deans for Impact, Michael Pershan and Benjamin Riley say the entire notion that different kids have different “learning styles” and instruction therefore needs to be adjusted to accommodate all the different “learning styles” is bunk. “Experiment after experiment has shown that matching the form of instruction to a student’s preferred ‘style’ of learning—such as auditory or visual—does not improve a student’s understanding,” they write. “As a result, the vast majority of cognitive scientists are certain that learning styles have been debunked.”

But the myth persists among teachers, they note. Why?

Just in case it’s because teachers simply haven’t heard the news that “learning styles” is a fruitless pursuit, they quote a letter written by 30 neuroscientists, including Steven Pinker and Hal Pashler, which endeavors to inform teachers that learning styles is a “neuromyth” that “create[s] a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.”

I have also posted on these pages several times, including here, that all the attention teachers like to give to neuroscience and brain activity studies has not been shown to improve student learning one bit.

So what gives? Are teachers simply ignoring the science? Are they under the influence of for-profit companies selling their wares?

Maybe this is a little like climate change: Despite mounting evidence that human activity has accelerated global warming, opinions in the US on this matter have become increasingly polarized, according to a study from the Pew Research Center on Internet and Technology published in October. Teachers like to believe they’re right about what they know, even when science says otherwise, just as politicians like to tout their own programs, even when they fly in the face of fact. And the younger a given teacher’s students are, the greater that teacher’s tendencies to stand their ground.

It’s not about the neuroscience

Bottom line: Knowing what happens in the brain doesn’t help teachers teach. What does help teachers teach (and students learn) is practicing the right ideas.

In other words, when teachers engage students using different modalities—visual, auditory, kinesthetic—it helps students learn simply because they’re getting practice with the same information, knowledge, or understanding presented not only again, but in a different way.

This hypothesis is also reinforced by the finding that college students who take notes on computer, even verbatim notes from their professors’ lectures, retain information and understanding at a lower rate than students who write out their lecture notes longhand. Handwriting requires students to “process” the information, to make their brains go over the information and frame it in yet another style, a shorter one that takes into account how much they have time to write given their writing speed and the pace of the lecture. That very act of reprocessing, like hearing classroom information in a different modality, simply reinforces the learning and increases retention of that information or understanding.

So while the idea of “learning styles” itself may be a dead end, what thinking about it does for teachers is to make them present knowledge and understanding to students in a few different frames of reference. That reinforces learning.

The notion isn’t inconsistent with “learning styles” being a total myth, as even if it is a myth, it leads to instruction that helps students learn. It’s just that the learning isn’t increasing as a result of those students’ different learning styles but because information is being presented in different frames of reference. When students have to think about the same information or understanding in more than one way, the learning is reinforced.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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