As an educator, I often come across the concept of “learning styles.” Briefly, this refers to the idea that different people learn in different ways. Concerned students will often remark that they didn’t do well on a given exam because they are “visual learners,” while parents will often note that their child is a “motor learner,” an “aural learner,” or perhaps an “intuitive learner.” The implicit message behind these labels is that educators need to match their method of instruction to match the style of the student, so as to maximize the student’s learning and performance. The flip side of this argument, of course, is that if the student learns or performs poorly, some of it may have to do with a mismatch between the student’s style and the method of instruction.
The notion of learning styles is deeply influential in educational circles; I myself recently attended a teacher training seminar sponsored by my own university where we were given assessments about our own learning styles and discussed ways to teach material catered to different learning styles. Learning styles are also big business, at least on the assessment side, with a number of websites and tests available to help people understand their own or their kids’ learning styles and strengths.
A very popular instrument, for example, is The Learning Styles Inventory (Kolb, 1984, 1985), which classifies learners as divergers, assimilators, convergers, and accommodators based on where they fall on a two-dimensional space (active–reflective versus abstract–concrete). This is not the only classificatory scheme, but it shares with other such schemes the idea that people’s learning styles can be classified into typologies.
The pull to understand what “type” of learner we are, much like the pull to understand what “type” of person we are, is very strong. Naturally, parents want the best for their kids, and learners in general want engaging, interesting material– but what is the research evidence behind these learning styles?
A 2008 study by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, addressed this very question by looking at the available data over the decades on this issues. Do studies that match (versus mismatch) students on the basis of their learning styles produce better performance? Here is the conclusion of the research:
“On the basis of our review, the belief that learning-style assessments are useful in educational contexts appears to be just that—a belief. Our conclusion reinforces other recent skeptical commentary on the topic (e.g., Coffield et al., 2004; Curry, 1990; Willingham, 2005, 2009)… At present…. we feel that the widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.” (p. 117)
This is a strong conclusion, but in just about every study that rigorously tested the “matching” hypothesis, the results failed to yield the expected increase in perfomance when a given student was matched to his or her learning style (different studies used different classification methods, but in each case the data in support of the matching hypothesis was not compelling). Even more striking, the more carefully designed and controlled the study, the less the data supported the hypothesis that matching learning styles to type of instruction mattered.
Two conclusions from this: the first is that we often have incredibly strong intuitions about what kind of person we (or our loved ones) are– but these intuitions often do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. This happens in the domain of education, as well as in the domain of personality.
The second conclusion is that absent evidence of learning styles, our precious educational resources may be better spent looking at other types of interventions that seem to work– as I discuss in this post and this post.
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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.