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