Saturday, April 7, 2018

“Another nail in the coffin for learning styles” – students did not benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style

It's not a good time to be promoting teaching methods based on so-called "learning styles" (here and here).  This post from the website Research Digest, a publication of the British Psychological Society, summarizes a recent study involving "hundreds" of undergrad anatomy students which found that those who employed study techniques congruent with their supposed "learning style" saw no improvement in their course grades compared to students who used study methods incongruent with their learning styles. The study itself can be accessed here. But here's an excerpt from the Research Digest post that summarizes the study's findings:

“Another nail in the coffin for learning styles” – students did not benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style


The idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred modality or “learning style” – such as visually, orally, or by doing – is not supported by evidence. Nonetheless the concept remains hugely popular, no doubt in part because learning via our preferred style can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t.


Some advocates of the learning styles approach argue that the reason for the lack of evidence to date is that students do so much of their learning outside of class. According to this view, psychologists have failed to find evidence for learning styles because they’ve focused too narrowly on whether it is beneficial to have congruence between teaching style and preferred learning style. Instead, they say psychologists should look for the beneficial effects of students studying outside of class in a manner that is consistent with their learning style.


For a new paper in Anatomical Sciences Education, a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have conducted just such an investigation with hundreds of undergrads. Once again however the findings do not support the learning styles concept, reinforcing its reputation among mainstream psychologists as little more than a myth.

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Continue reading here.

Hat tip to Professor Debbie Borman.


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I could write another article in response. Twenty-five years ago, the prevailing view was that law students - all of them - learned by listening. It justified large lecture halls and Socratic method of teaching. There were no studies of law students and how they learned.

I teamed up with the (late) Dr. Rita Dunn who led the graduate School of Ed here on campus ; she ran centers around the globe on learning styles. She also supervised 100 graduate doctoral studies and hundreds of articles (and books). We assessed the learning styles of St. John's law students, and eventually other schools, using the assessment tool based upon the Dunn and Dunn model that she used frequently with other populations. Not surprisingly, law students showed a preference for a variety of ways to learn, not all preferred to learn by listening.

As researchers say - it is not a perfect science. - and I agree. We examined students' self-reflection of their learning preferences (how students filled out surveys). After that initial study, Dr Dunn sent grad students to me and we ran more studies, along with a host of experts. In addition to the doctoral dissertation committees of experts on education theory, we hired statisticians, visual graphics artists, grammarians, and created (when needed) additional panels of experts to compare materials. The grad students published them as doctoral studies. I wrote law rev articles, which document these studies and findings. I still stand by the research.

What can be wrong with students reflecting on how they learn? What can be wrong with mixing up the classroom a bit and not just lecturing but using visuals and handouts, and group work, etc.? Putting this in historical context - the concept of doing something in the room other than lecture - stemmed from the studies on learning styles. Frankly, it is nonsense to say it's harmful to assess learning styles. It is like saying - it's harmful to tell people to eat vegetables because they might eat too many.

The studies by the naysayers are flawed in design. The best way to study this topic is to do what we did - we pre-tested and post-tested students on the subject that was narrowly isolated. We created two sets of materials - one for the control group and one for the experimental. Could we have done more - sure. We could have isolated more and studied more, but we got statistical significance by creating materials that reached learners through a variety of means. I would have kept going - but sadly Dr. Dunn passed.

The last study circulated via the LW blog looked at GPA - wrong! Too many variables go into GPA. I'm no statistician, but even I know that.

Thus, my salvo is not to put a "nail in the coffin" as the last critical article called out, but to continue mixing it up in the classroom, working with students on how they think they learn best, and eating more vegetables.


Robin Boyle

Professor of Legal Writing

St. John's University School of Law

8000 Utopia Parkway

Jamaica, NY 11439

tel: (718) 990-6609

email: [email protected] <>

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You can access my papers at the website of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN): <

Posted by: Robin Boyle | Apr 11, 2018 8:58:03 AM

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