Friday, November 2, 2018
The Death of Learning Styles Theory?
For years, “learning styles theory” has been a significant part of law school academic support. It was said that struggling students would perform better if they focused their studies on using their preferred learning style: read/ write, auditory, kinesthetic, or visual, for instance. Moreover, struggling students would also perform better if academic support faculty (or others) diversified their teaching by using all of the learning styles. In fact, many law schools still employ learning styles theory as a facet of their academic support program.
But is there any empirical support for the validity of learning styles theory? Should law school academic support programs continue to promote this method?
The answer is: Probably not.
LST takes on two forms. The first is called “the matching hypothesis.” This idea claims that if instructors use teaching methods aimed at each learning style, students will learn material better because the instruction will engage each student’s preferred learning style. The other type, which we might call “LST study methods,” suggests that students can maximize the effectiveness of their study by emphasizing methods that comport with their preferred learning style, which they determine by means of a “LST inventory.” For instance, auditory learners might leverage resources like lectures; kinesthetic learners should create poster-board flowcharts, etc.
The problem is that many experts now hold the view that LST is probably invalid. According to many researchers, most of the publications advancing these ideas were theoretical and not experimental, and those that did employ empirical methods produced mixed results and/ or were methodologically unsound. Moreover, recent empirical studies, employing more scientifically rigorous methods, support the claim that these theories lack merit.
For example, in Another Nail in the Coffin of Learning Styles Theory? Husmann and colleagues empirically assessed the efficacy of the LST study methods concept. The study followed 426 undergraduate anatomy students to determine whether aligning study strategies to mesh with students' learning style, as determined by a VARK instrument, correlated with academic performance. Analyzing the data, the researchers found that students using study methods consistent with their highest scoring VARK scores performed no better than those who did not. The authors also noted that students’ use of methods with which they were most “comfortable” might run afoul of the concept of “desirable difficulties,” which holds that cognitive struggle actually promotes learning.
Rogowsky, et al, in Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension, administered several common “learning styles inventories” to test subjects to determine each one’s learning style. They then randomly placed subjects in different instructional conditions, including e-texts for one group and audiobooks for another, for instance. Not only did the study fail to produce evidence supporting the “matching hypothesis,” but the researchers suggested that LST might actually be harmful due to its tendency to steer students away from improving their weaknesses.
These studies are just a few of the numerous empirical analyses of LST that seem to undermine its legitimacy. From these studies we might conclude that ASP faculty should be skeptical both of the “matching hypothesis” and the “LST study method” concepts. What remains of LST, however, might be the strategy of diversifying teaching and studying not so much to comport with learning styles, per se, but to promote learning engagement. There IS empirical evidence that diversifying learning promotes engagement, and that engagement promotes knowledge acquisition and retention.
Of course, how can students accomplish this feat when legitimate outside resources are scarce and oftentimes banned in law schools? I will take up that issue in a future post.
As always, I welcome comments.