Sunday, January 28, 2018

Open letter from 30 learning scientists declares no evidence to support "learning styles"

An open letter signed by 30 leading neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists and other prominent researchers and scholars declares that there is no evidence to support the notion that individual student learning styles exist such as the so-called "visual," "audio" or "kinesthetic" styles commonly identified by teachers. So why does "learning style" theory persist? First, it has a lot of intuitive appeal - when we see, for example, students who've been raised on digital technologies constantly staring at their screens, it's very easy and natural to assume that they would learn best via visual, screen-based modalities (it's not true).  Another reason the learning style myth has been so persistent is that when educators talk to students about their supposed "learning style," insofar as it causes students to think and reflect on how they actually learn, it can have a positive impact on learning outcomes. Thus, encouraging a belief in individual learning styles becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy (but not because they work; rather it's the metacognitive aspect of asking students to reflect on their own thinking). So what's the harm in continuing to perpetuate a belief in "learning style" theory? As the scientists who signed the open letter argue, continuing to believe in a theory for which there is no empirical support means that precious educational resources will be diverted away from the study of more effective and merit-based learning strategies to the detriment of students.

Here's an excerpt from the letter which was published last March in The Guardian (UK) (I only just learned of it now):

No evidence to back idea of learning styles


There is widespread interest among teachers in the use of neuroscientific research findings in educational practice. However, there are also misconceptions and myths that are supposedly based on sound neuroscience that are prevalent in our schools. We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.


Generally known as “learning styles”, it is the belief that individuals can benefit from receiving information in their preferred format, based on a self-report questionnaire. This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing.


There are, however, a number of problems with the learning styles approach. First, there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles. Usually, individuals are categorised into one of three preferred styles of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners based on self-reports. One study found that there were more than 70 different models of learning styles including among others, “left v right brain,” “holistic v serialists,” “verbalisers v visualisers” and so on. The second problem is that categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.


Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence.”


These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.

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Continue reading here.


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