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by Nancy Chick, CFT Assistant Director

 

What are Learning Styles? |  Caution! | Why Are They So Popular? |  Now What?

What are Learning Styles?

The term learning styles is widely used to describe how learners gather, sift through, interpret, organize, come to conclusions about, and “store” information for further use.  As spelled out in VARK (one of the most popular learning styles inventories), these styles are often categorized by sensory approaches:  visual, aural, verbal [reading/writing], and kinesthetic.  Many of the models that don’t resemble the VARK’s sensory focus are reminiscent of Felder and Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles, with a continuum of descriptors for how learners process and organize information:  active-reflective, sensing-intuitive, verbal-visual, and sequential-global.

There are well over 70 different learning styles schemes (Coffield, 2004), most of which are supported by “a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks” and “professional development workshops for teachers and educators” (Pashler, et al., 2009, p. 105).

Despite the variation in categories, the fundamental idea behind learning styles is the same: that each of us has a specific learning style (sometimes called a “preference”), and we learn best when information is presented to us in this style.  For example, visual learners would learn any subject matter best if given graphically or through other kinds of visual images, kinesthetic learners would learn more effectively if they could involve bodily movements in the learning process, and so on.  The message thus given to instructors is that “optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style[s] and tailoring instruction accordingly” (Pashler, et al., 2009, p. 105).

Caution!

Despite the popularity of learning styles and inventories such as the VARK, it’s important to know that there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.  It’s not simply a matter of “the absence of evidence doesn’t mean the evidence of absence.”  On the contrary, for years researchers have tried to make this connection through hundreds of studies.

In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork to evaluate the research on learning styles to determine whether there is credible evidence to support using learning styles in instruction.  They came to a startling but clear conclusion:  “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.”  Many of those studies suffered from weak research design, rendering them far from convincing.  Others with an effective experimental design “found results that flatly contradict the popular” assumptions about learning styles (p. 105). In sum,

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing” (p. 117).

 

Why Are They So Popular?

Pashler and his colleagues point to some reasons to explain why learning styles have gained—and kept—such traction, aside from the enormous industry that supports the…


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