The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

The discourse around “learning styles” (the idea that because some students prefer to learn visually, orally, kinesthetically, or through reading/writing, teachers should adapt their lesson plans to meet student preferences) has been useful to me in that it helped me to realize that some methods of instructions that seemed natural to me were actually choices I was making because I was familiar.

But students who blame teachers for not respecting their “learning style” aren’t doing their education (or their teachers) any favors.

I was introduced to “learning styles” early in my career, by a college administrator who was an evangelist for the concept. But this approach is only useful up to a point. For example, If a course requires a researched term paper, students will need to read scholarly articles and writing academic prose even if they don’t prefer the reading/writing learning style.

Having said that, I was completely unable to sing on pitch in high school until the choir teacher loaned me a theory book that I took home over the weekend. When I came back, I could sing. (More or less. I still tend to go flat, but I served as a church cantor for years and sang plenty of solo lines in semi-pro and community musical theatre.) But even though reading a theory book helped me to get over a hurdle, I can’t fault a music teacher for teaching music with auditory methods.

As part of the “flipped classroom” movement, I have pushed more of my content-delivery out of lectures (where students sit passively) and into homework (in the form of video lectures, self-guided workshops and a reading response journal). As part of my own attempts to be more inclusive, I have started pointing students towards a short list of 5 or so resources, including video and audio options, alongside the articles and textual worksheets I would typically assign. Each item in the list doesn’t perfectly overlap with the others, and as part of their followup I ask them to make a connection between ideas they found in at least two different sources, and then respond to the connections made by their peers.

All of which is part of a plan to help students moving beyond spotting and repeating the correct answers that content-heavy classes expose them to in their textbooks, and towards looking for tensions and patterns and diverse viewpoints, with an eye towards practicing their own ability to construct and defend an original evidence-based argument that takes a nuanced position on a complex issue where well-meaning experts disagree.

From Olga Khazan, in The Atlantic:

Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, but those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better on their tests.

Husmann thinks that the students had fallen into certain study habits, which, once formed, were too hard to break. Students seemed to be interested in their learning styles, but not enough to actually change their studying behavior based on them. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Source: The Atlantic

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