If you design or develop learning content, chances are you’ve been asked to cater to different learning styles. The idea behind learning styles is that individuals have preferred ways of taking in and processing information, and that teaching and learning can be made more effective by considering these individual differences. This shows up in learning design by using a variety of approaches to teach a skill or concept. The idea that a learner has a particular learning style – such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic – is not new. Where did it come from?
History of Learning Styles
While some claim the concept dates back to Aristotle, one of the most commonly known models was published in 1984 by David Kolb. An American educational theorist and organizational consultant, David Kolb, created a model of experiential learning. In his model, Kolb’s idea of learning is centered around four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. According to the model, individuals have a different preference for each stage of learning and learn more easily when their learning experiences correlate with their learning styles. Kolb also created a learning styles questionnaire focusing on how people prefer to learn. Again, this is based on the idea that people learn best when taught in their dominant style.
Kolb’s research and model remain highly influential today – especially in the field of education. Experiential learning and learning styles continue to be widely discussed and debated, but are considered to be important contributions to the field of educational psychology.
So, it should come as no surprise that a quick search of the internet will turn up numerous books and articles for why you should use learning styles. And – if I’m being completely honest – the concept makes sense intuitively.
What are the supposed benefits to using learning styles as an instructional strategy? Here are some common claims:
- individuals with different learning styles receive and interpret information differently
- each individual has a dominant learning style
- performance improves when individuals are taught in their dominant style
Research Issues with Learning Styles Studies
When you take a closer look at the studies that support the concept of learning styles, you’ll find they fail to follow study design and methods that produce results that are valid and reliable. In short, they are not scientifically sound. Here are some of the most glaring problems:
- failure to measure learning style instead of capturing preference
- learning style or preference not correlated to performance
- numerous different models and tools
Research Issue 1: Failure to measure learning styles
Typically learning styles are ‘measured’ by having participants fill out a questionnaire asking them how they feel they would learn best when given a set of options. How a participant responds is not really an indication of how he or she learns best but how they prefer to learn. Here’s an example. If you were to choose between sitting through a long lecture or participating in an immersive AR activity, you’d probably choose the latter. One option is just more interesting to participate in than the other. This choice doesn’t show that you have a trait or inherent quality marking you as a kinesthetic learner. Most people would choose the same answer and it has nothing to do with how they learn best, it’s just what’s more entertaining.
A glaring issue here is that the questionnaire provides no context. WHAT are you learning? What is the environment in which you are learning? Why do you need to learn it and when would you need to use the information? As you can imagine, providing context would most definitely impact the way that you feel you’d prefer to learn. Using this questionnaire isn’t a valid way to demonstrate how someone learns best, it’s instead telling us what learning activities someone thinks they might enjoy most.
Research Issue 2: Preference versus performance
As mentioned previously, learning style questionnaires require participants to make a choice on how they prefer to learn. However, preference doesn’t equal performance. Several studies have proved these items are not related. In one example, all 5th graders at an elementary school in Pennsylvania participated in a study to test for a correlation between learning styles and performance. Students were randomly put into one of four groups with varying learning modalities and test forms. Students took the same learning styles inventory. They were unaware of the purpose of this study, and were not given any type of feedback. Results from the test forms showed no improvement in performance when students were assessed matching their learning style. Learning styles showed no effect on student achievement whatsoever.
Implementing learning styles has not been shown to improve learning performance. At best you will gain small insights into your learners’ preferences in absence of content, context, and ability or skill level.
Research Issue 3: Numerous different models and tools
There are at least 71 different models used to determine learning styles. From a research standpoint, this variety makes data unreliable because you cannot expect to get the same results for a given learner when there are different models, tools, and techniques. For example, the VARK classifies learners into four categories- visual, aura, read/write, and kinesthetic. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences inventory uses nine different learning style categories, bodily kinesthetic, existential intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spacial, musical intelligence, and naturalistic. These models do not map to each other. Further complicating matters, these tools and techniques change over time. For example, the VARK model mentioned earlier currently has at least 8 different versions of their learning styles inventory. With so many models, you cannot expect consistent results. You could even take the same inventory twice and wind up with different results.
In other words, any data from these models is not reliable because you will get a different result depending on which models and tools you used. To be considered as true evidence each individual model would require validation.
Since learning styles aren’t useful, what should I do instead?
Rather than pick an instructional format based on learning styles or preferences, make that decision based on the content and context, desired learning outcome, and the learning environment. What are you trying to teach?
Let’s say you are a plumber and need to teach your apprentice how to troubleshoot problems with a garbage disposal. First, they need to be able to identify the different parts of the garbage disposal. Which of the following do you think the apprentice would prefer?
Option A: List of parts with descriptions
- Stopper- A stopper on a garbage disposal is a removable plug or cover that fits over the sink drain and helps prevent food waste or other debris from going down the drain and into the disposal unit.
- Sink-mounting flange- It is a circular metal or plastic ring that is mounted onto the sink’s opening, and it forms a watertight seal between the sink and the garbage disposal.
- Support flange– A metal or plastic ring that is typically located at the top of the disposal unit. Its primary function is to provide stability and support to the unit, which is attached to the sink by means of mounting assembly.
- Support screws– Connect the support flange to the hopper.
- Hopper– Found just below the stopper and sink mount.
- Stopper switch– Connection at the hopper from the shredder housing.
- Inlet for dishwasher- A small opening on the side of the disposal unit that allows a dishwasher to drain its wastewater into the disposal.
- Clamping ring– Connects the shredder to the top half of the disposal.
- Motor housing gasket– A gasket between the shredder and clamping ring.
- Shredder– A set of teeth or blades that are responsible for breaking down food waste into small particles.
- Impeller – Connects to the shredder.
- Drain chamber– A holding tank for disposal contents.
- Drain– An outlet to drain the disposal.
- Power supply– A dedicated circuit with a grounded outlet connected to a switch on the wall or disposal unit itself.
- Power button– A button located at the bottom of the disposal.
Option B: Garbage disposal graphic with parts listed
If you chose Option B, it doesn’t mean you are a visual learner. Rather, for this context and content a visual aid is more helpful than just having a list of parts and descriptions in a text-only format.
Let’s say you are going to visit your new in-laws and will be staying in Spain with them for three weeks. You want to surprise them by speaking some basic Spanish. How would you prefer to learn how to speak Spanish?
Option A: Read this book
Option B: Listen to examples in this video
If you chose the video, it doesn’t mean you’re an auditory learner. It is simply much more helpful to learn to speak in a new language through listening to how it sounds. Reading the book would likely be more useful if you were learning to write in the Spanish.
You get the idea. The context and content should drive the learning experience you create. Refocus your learning experiences and disregard learning styles as an instructional strategy.
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