Monday, November 24, 2014

Learning styles are bogus

Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at UVA and author of Why Students Don't Like School (hint - it's because learning is hard), has written before about the lack of empirical data supporting the theory of learning styles (including in the aforementioned book).  Here is another short article he wrote for the TES blog which bills itself as the world's largest online community for teachers.   The article is called Classroom Practice – Listen Closely, Learning Styles are a Lost Cause can be found here.  Learning styles are controversial and provoke strong feelings among many teachers insofar as some are convinced of their existence no matter what people like Professor Willingham claim while others remain skeptical in light of the studies that have failed to prove that, for example, students who identify as visual learners score better on tests when the teacher uses visual techniques than if the same material is taught using a different modality like aural, kinesthetic, etc.  This most recent article likely won't change many minds but is still worth a glance if you're interested in the topic.  Here's an excerpt: 

. . . .

In many schools – indeed, in some teacher training institutions – learning styles are treated as proven fact. And although some teachers have accepted that this faith is misguided, others fight the truth and vigorously defend the theory. A common argument is that their teaching has always been informed by learning styles and their experience bears out the theory’s utility. The science, they say, must be wrong. I can assure you, it is not.

Most studies on the theory tend to test it as follows:


  • Step 1 – determine the “learning style” of, say, 100 people.
  • Step 2 – offer an experience that is consistent with the style of half the group and inconsistent with the style of the other half. For example, if you have 50 people with a “visual style”, show 25 of them a silent film that depicts a story and make the other 25 listen to an audio version of the story. Then do the same for the 50 people with an auditory style: half experience the story in their preferred style (by listening) and half in their non-preferred style (by watching).
  • Step 3 – measure people’s comprehension of the story or their memory of it some time later.

If learning styles existed, the people who had experienced the story in their preferred style would get more out of it. Unfortunately, all the studies show that this core prediction simply does not hold; not for children with typical development and not for children who have learning difficulties.

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Continue reading here.


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