Revisiting Learning Styles

As part of David Kelly’s Learning Styles Awareness Day, I’m revisiting the idea of learning styles. I admit that when I was taught learning styles in my education program, I didn’t question it. It made intuitive sense, and I’d never heard a real criticism of the theory. When I started digging into the research though, I realized that the research support for learning styles is pretty flimsy.

rhythm on a whiteboardIf I think back to the way learning styles were taught to me though, it was never applied the way that the theory is “officially” supposed to work. The most common idea is that people have some sort of style, and if you match that style they will learn better. That’s what Will Thalheimer’s still-unanswered research challenge asks for: something where individuals receive training matched to their style. If you’re a visual learner, you would only receive learning via visual methods; if you’re an auditory learner, you’d listen to everything you learn, etc.

That was never how it was applied in the classroom though. For K-12 classroom applications, learning styles were really about providing multiple methods of learning for everyone in the class. In a physical classroom, you didn’t have the option of individualizing everything, so you tended to look for ways to hit the visual and auditory at the same time or for multiple activities to reinforce the same content.

As a music teacher, that might mean something like teaching rhythms through multiple channels. I’d start by having students listen to me chant and clap a rhythm (auditory), then have them echo that rhythm back (auditory and kinesthetic). After several minutes of echoing rhythms with a specific type of pattern, I’d draw a rhythm on the chalkboard (yes, actual chalk) and connect how it looks to how it sounds (visual and auditory). Then we’d practice reading some rhythms with similar patterns, with them looking, chanting, and clapping all together.

If I was teaching music today, I’d do that same kind of lesson, just not because of learning styles. That’s all based on the Kodály method, which does have research support (at least as far as I know; I haven’t dug into it since I rarely teach music anymore). But the idea of approaching concepts from multiple angles with different methods and media still makes sense. It isn’t because I’m matching to a particular style; it’s because I’m helping everyone learn through multiple channels. This might be what Tom Stafford from Mind Hacks is getting at when he says “Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation.” I really wish he provided a citation for the idea that thinking about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching though; I’d like to know whether that’s just his opinion or something with data to support it.

So what does this mean for me as an instructional designer today, rather than a K-12 music and band teacher? As an instructional designer, I basically ignore learning styles. I do think about presenting information with both visuals and audio, but that’s more based on cognitive load theory than learning styles. I’m also working to do better at visual presentation with graphics and not just words, because that is supported by research. As Judy Unrein noted “…humans are such overwhelmingly visual creatures that if we simply catered better to that one sense, we could improve the vast majority of our designs.”

Judy’s idea of focusing on interaction preferences is an interesting one. People do have different preferences, and those preferences can change based on the context (and the type of content, I would add). Giving learners some control over how they interact with the training does seem beneficial. If we don’t lock down the navigation, they can choose which parts they really need. In spite of the research, I personally find audio in e-learning to be generally obnoxious, so if I can turn it off and read the captions instead, I almost always will do that instead. I can read much faster that you can read to me, thank you very much, so I’m annoyed if you don’t give me the option of reading.

What about you? Is there anything in learning styles that you find useful in your own practice, or is it something you’ve abandoned in favor of other ideas?

Image credit: rhythm by billaday

15 thoughts on “Revisiting Learning Styles

  1. As a person who struggled through school and college because of the methodology used (classroom lectures and take home assignments), I found an article “Flipped Classrooms” very interesting. (http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/18/my-view-flipped-classrooms-give-every-student-a-chance-to-succeed/)

    I think having Preclassroom materials (video, readings, etc) and then using the classroom to assist students (children or adults) to understand the materials and put the skills into practice would help people regardless of learning style or preference.

    • Maery, there’s good research support for blended learning. For example, the Department of Education meta-analysis of 12 years of studies found that online is better than classroom learning, and blended is even better, as long as it is designed well.

      Prework or classroom flipping is a sort of blended learning. You can combine synchronous and asynchronous activities. Flipping the classroom puts the content that is easiest asynchronously (passive listening to a lecture) out of the classroom and saves valuable classroom time for questions and practice.

      Flipping the classroom isn’t a perfect solution though. It’s still using a lecture, which isn’t the most effective learning method. In K-12 situations, any sort of homework tends to favor students in better socioeconomic situations, because those are the people who have parents at home (not working a second job) to help. They have computers and internet access and other resources. Also, if you didn’t learn much from lectures in a physical classroom, you probably won’t learn much more from lectures recorded on video. Being able to pause and replay or to listen at your best learning time might help some, but it’s still sometimes a concern.

      Overall, though, I agree with your idea that we can focus on methods that help everyone regardless of their learning preferences. We’re better off expending our energy there than on learning styles.

  2. Hi Christy – I’ve enjoyed following the #learningstyles hashtag today and appreciate your post. (Thanks for the link to Judy Unrein’s post as well!) As an instructional designer, I do think that we as learners have learning preferences, but the “styles” assessments can work against us, giving us a reason or something to blame if it doesn’t go well. The assessments could be a starting point for discussion among students and teachers, but need to be presented in the context of opening up resources instead of limiting them. I wrote about the Learning Styles Debate last year (http://www.onlinecollege.org/2011/06/28/the-learning-styles-debate/) and tried to highlight some of the voices out there.

    • That’s an interesting point about having an easy excuse to blame. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. We can be lazy and not think about it further if we have this ready-made excuse. I think the “net gen” learner stuff is that way sometimes too. “My training didn’t work because these durned younguns learn differently.”

      People do have learning preferences though. I did a cognitive styles assessment and talked to my high school students when I was teaching. It was a way to help them learn about themselves and learn better strategies for studying and working. If we use it as a way to put learners in control of their decisions, and to help guide them in more effective decisions, maybe there is some value there.

      Don Clark says that learning styles are for the individual, not the group. “That is, when you analyze a group, the findings often suggest that learning styles are relative[ly] unimportant, however, when you look at an individual, then the learning style often distinguishes itself as a key component of being able to learn or not.”

      Your idea of opening up resources and giving learners choices makes sense in that respect. It’s not that we have to try to hit every learning style as an instructional designer, per se, but we do need to give options on how learners interact because it matters to the individual.

  3. Great article- I definitely agree that learning styles vary by individual and educators should take into consideration more immersive learning techniques for kids. With that being said, I just wanted to let you know that the National Flight Academy (in Pensacola, FL) is on the same page and hopes to further inspire our students’ passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education with their new program, the Aviation In Residence (AIR). The week long program teaches students STEM principles in an immersive environment using state of the art simulators and role play. You can go to http://www.nationalflightacademy.com for more information on how to enroll. Since this is a newer program, I figured it would be something you and your readers might be interested in…Keep up the good work!

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  6. Thanks for the mention, Christy! It was difficult to stop writing about “interaction preferences” (terminology that I made up on the spot to describe what I was thinking — not to throw more jargon into the mix!) once I had started, but I’ll follow up with more thoughts soon. I completely agree with your preference on audio, and that’s the kind of thing I think we should be thinking about in terms of customizing learning experiences.

  7. Hi, Christy
    I have really enjoyed reading your post “Revisiting Learning Styles” and branching off to visit the resources and links you have provided. Your post has really given me something to think about. This is the first time I’ve heard mention that what we think we know about learning styles might not be all it’s cracked up to be. As an instructional designer in corporate and higher ed for 18 years, I’ve always been aware of “learning styles” and what they are supposed to mean about humans as learners. I, myself, am predominately a visual learner. And I know others who profess that they are auditory learners or kinesthetic learners. I have no doubts that individuals do have learning “preferences;” however, I’m not sure how much farther we can take learning styles, other than to acknowledge that individuals do tend to have preferences. Similar to your teaching experiences described in your post, I also try to present students with a variety of learning experiences within a course. I try to give them opportunities to experience the content in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic ways. Even though learners tend to have preferences for how they learn, I think it’s important for learners to be exposed to as many presentation styles as possible. Especially today, in our very interconnected world, we experience content in a variety of ways, through reading and listening, in particular. In order to be a well-rounded learner, individuals need to have experience and expertise taking in content in a variety of modalities. Even though I, myself, am a predominately visual learner, I find myself learning in all manner of ways, visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Sometimes different types of content require different modalities of delivery. And in order to be effective learners out in the world, we humans need to be adept at taking in content in whatever form we find it.

    • Thanks for commenting, April. I think you’re in good company with a lot of people who never heard anything critical of learning styles until recently. I certainly accepted the idea without question until about 2008. I also agree that learners have preferences, although I think they are more fluid and dependent on context than the VAK or VATK model implies.

      Stephen Downes commented, “But of more interest: would learners, left to their own devices, adopt different learning styles? I think they would – which is a prima facie argument that learning styles exist. Or conversely, that the people who oppose learning styles must base their argument on their lack of utility, not their lack of existence.”

      I think Stephen’s point about leaving learners “to their own devices” is an important one. Yes, let’s provide multiple ways to interact with content–and then let’s let learners make choices about how to interact. Let’s help them make their own decisions and improve their self-learning skills. As I said in an earlier comment, learning styles make sense at the individual level. It’s just not useful to try to match teaching styles to learning styles as an instructional designer.

      Just because learning styles don’t have value in that one context doesn’t mean they can’t have some value in different contexts.

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