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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Are Learning Styles Real - and Useful?

We've collected nine varying opinions from learning experts about whether the idea of learning styles is valid and a useful addition to a teacher's toolkit.
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
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As noted in Edutopia's Multiple Intelligences brief, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner describes learning styles as how an individual approaches a range of tasks "categorized in different ways: visual/auditory/kinesthetic, impulsive/reflective, right brain/left brain, etc. Gardner calls learning styles 'a hypothesis of how an individual approaches a range of materials.'"

Here we present the views of well-respected educators and researchers debating the limitations and utility of learning styles.

Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert A. Bjork

Harold Pashler is a Professor of Psychology in the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also the author of The Psychology of Attention and the editor of Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology. Mark McDaniel, Professor of Psychology with a joint appointment in education at Washington University in St. Louis, is the coauthor of Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging and Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field. Doug Rohrer is Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. Most of his research concerns learning and memory, with a recent emphasis on learning strategies. Robert A. Bjork is a Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on human learning and memory, and on the implications of the science of learning for instruction and training.

We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria. First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.
However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above [editor's note: this is sometimes referred to as "matching" instruction with students' learning styles], which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. (Source: "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" [PDF])

Mark K. Smith

Mark Smith is a London-based researcher and educator at Developing Learning. He writes for and edits infed.org and is on the editorial board of Youth and Policy. His recent co-edited books include Learning Through Outdoor Experiences (PDF) and Youth Work and Faith.

Few us can approach the "ideal" in this respect and tend, [David Kolb and Roger Fry] suggest, to develop a strength in, or orientation to, one of the poles of each dimension. As a result they developed a learning style inventory (Kolb 1976), which was designed to place people on a line between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization; and active experimentation and reflective observation. Using this, Kolb and Fry proceeded to identify four basic learning styles.
As Anderson (1988, cited in Tennant 1996) highlights, there is a need to take account of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based. Here we need to attend to different models of selfhood -- and the extent to which these may differ from the "western" assumptions that underpin the Kolb and Fry model. (Source: David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning)

David J.M. Kraemer, Lauren M. Rosenberg, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill

David J.M. Kraemer is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Lauren M. Rosenberg worked in the laboratory of Sharon L. Thompson-Schill, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

An important feature of processing in a specific cognitive style is that when one encounters a stimulus that is presented in a non-preferred modality, one mentally converts that information into his or her preferred modality.
Thus it is striking that, based on individual differences in cognitive style, these regions are recruited during the tasks for which they are not most strongly associated on the group level. This individualized activation is taken to be indicative of a strategy in which those who utilize the visual style mentally convert written information into a visual representation, and those who utilize the verbal style convert visual information into a linguistic representation. Presumably, this converted representation facilitates processing and later recall. Future research can reveal more about the nature of these representations and the costs and consequences on task performance of engaging or not engaging in this conversion process. (Source: "The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles")

Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes leads the Learning and Performance Support Systems program at the National Research Council in Canada, and is one of the originators of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). He has published 135 articles, books, magazines, and academic journals, and has presented more than 250 times.

Cathy Moore writes, "Learning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research."
The research, however, is very narrow and based on a narrow "instructivist" definition of teaching as a form of instruction to produce content recall. From my perspective, however, one of the problems of instructivist approaches is that they are completely indifferent to -- and unimpacted by -- individual learner differences. The instructivists (people like Willingham spring to mind here) say instructional method is defined by the content, not the learner. So they begin by denying what to me is the most obvious and intuitive fact about learning and education -- that everyone is different. It seems clear to me that we would teach the blind person differently from the deaf, or the expert learner differently from the novice. And if content-focused approaches don't reflect the difference, so much the worse for them.
My take is that many people who talk about learning styles are not instructionists and are working toward more than simple recall -- they are, for example, constructivists seeking to foster understanding, creativity, and value assessment. It's true, as Moore says, that "the best way to honor people's individuality isn't to shove them into simplistic categories." But it isn't to treat them as identical robots either, and this requires beginning with the person, and not with the content.

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist and a Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Senior Director of Project Zero. Among his 30 books are Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World co-written with Katie Davis.

Senses: Sometimes people speak about a "visual" learner or an "auditory" learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent. Both spatial information and reading occur with the eyes, but they make use of entirely different cognitive faculties. Similarly, both music and speaking activate the ears, but again these are entirely different cognitive faculties. Recognizing this fact, the concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain -- via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn't matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.
Drop the term "styles." It will confuse others and it won't help either you or your students. (Source: "Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘Learning Styles")

Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is one of the world's leading translators of educational neuroscience. He has written 26 books, including Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement and Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain: Helping Underperforming Students Become Lifelong Learners.

First, quality studies in education (large sample sizes, randomized, cross-over design, longitudinal, etc.) are very expensive and rare. So the lack of quality studies may raise an eyebrow, but unless there's a drug being tested by a company with deep pockets, it's hard to get the best quality for studies in education. Second, you cannot "prove" anything, only disprove it. The evidence that "disproves" learning styles is not 100 percent airtight, by any means.
What to do? In your teaching, continue to use a variety of teaching methods. Continue to combine visual with auditory. Be sure to add the tactile and action-based processes to learning. Continue to notice which kids respond better to which types of teaching. (Source: "Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?")

Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul writes a weekly Time.com column about learning, and wrote Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, and The Cult of Personality.

The "learning style" that teachers and parents should focus on is the universal learning style of the human mind, and two characteristics of it in particular. First, students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms. They learn more, for example, from flashcards that incorporate both text and images -- charts, graphs, etc. -- than from cards that display text alone. Second, students' interest is kept alive by novelty and variety, so regularly turning away from textbooks and blackboards is key. As long as the new activity genuinely informs the students about the academic subject at hand, clapping a math lesson -- or sketching in science class, or acting during story time -- can help every student to learn better. (Source: "Do Students Really Have Different Learning Styles?")

Carol Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the University of Virginia. She has written over 200 articles and is the author of 15 books, including The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners and, with Tonya Moon, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom.

The concept of a learning profile is an umbrella term for a body of research suggesting four categories [editor’s note: gender, culture, intelligence preferences, and learning styles] of influence on how people approach learning.
It may be that neuroscientists are hearing us narrowly because we've envisioned and explained the concept of learning style more narrowly than we should have. There is something in the idea of learning style to which so many people relate, that it's worth continuing to study what goes on in learning that is "something like" a learning style. (Source: "Learning Style: What We Know, What We Don't Know, What We Need to Know -- and What We Should Do" [PDF])

David Glenn

David Glenn is the senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education and covers social science research. His writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lingua Franca, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review.

The grandfather of this territory is David A. Kolb, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University, who began to study learning styles in the late 1960s. In an interview, Mr. Kolb agrees with Mr. Sternberg that Mr. Pashler's review of the literature [on learning styles] seems too thin.
But Mr. Kolb also says that the paper's bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students' particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full "learning cycle," without regard to their students' particular styles.)
"Matching is not a particularly good idea," Mr. Kolb says. "The paper correctly mentions the practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history."

We'd be interested in hearing your ideas about learning styles. Please share in the comments section below.

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thebandb's picture

In our 2015 book "Urban Myths about Learning and Education", we delved into all the evidence and had to conclude that learning styles are a myth to leave behind. Maybe interesting to know that you can win a 5000 dollar reward with the Learning Styles Challenge.

Will Thalheimer describes the challenge:

"I will give $5000 (US dollars) to the first person or group who can prove that taking learning styles into account in designing instruction can produce meaningful learning benefits."

Check http://www.willatworklearning.com/2014/08/learning-styles-challenge-year...

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chilbrands's picture

I think it's important to use all different types of learning styles. There is never going to be one specific way every child learns. It's better to explore a variety of different learning styles when teaching and see what fits best for the majority of students and give extra attention to those who struggle just like any classroom.

Scott Salthun's picture

Varying instructional delivery and assessment is critical in address individual learning preferences, but also in acknowledging multiple modes of receptivity for students. The more opportunities we offer for them to respond to instuction, the more meaningful the learning will be.

MarioBrutus's picture

The issue is not whether learning styles exist based on the criteria established in a variety of studies or a theoretical perspective. What matters is engaging the student's interest through a variety of methods. If these methods work to assist a student's learning process, than they could be said to "fit" the way a student gains information. To argue over the terminology ignores the purpose of presenting information in a variety of ways. We, the human race, are not carbon copies of each other; on the inside or outside. How each of us is capable of understanding new information is based on the utilization of combinations of our five senses. How we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste information provides attachments, cognitively, to this new content. Do we all process the information the same way? I would hazard a guess that the variability of learning methods far exceeds the current attempt to categorize them into the small number of boxes used today.

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