Friday, October 18, 2019

The pernicious falsehood about visual learners and other neuromyths

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an important article that every law professor who cares about teaching should read. The CHE article reports on the recently published “International Report: Neuromyths and Evidence-Based Practices in Higher Education” by the Online Learning Consortium which summarizes the results of a survey sent to thousands of teachers working in higher education to assess their awareness of several so-called "neuromyths" such as "listening to classical music increases reasoning ability," or "students learn best when they are taught according to their preferred learning styles," or whether one is “left-brained” or “right-brained” explains differences in how we learn. Of these neuromyths, the most pervasive among those in higher education is that students learn best when we teach according to their self-perceived learning style. As the OLC study points out, there is no evidence to support the truth of this widely held belief. Of course, there's also no evidence to support the more fundamental point that so-called individual learning styles based on visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or similar preferences exist at all. (See here, here, here, here, and here). But perhaps the most important point to emerge from the OLC report is that continuing to adhere to these neuromyths may be detrimental to student learning because, for example, it encourages students to seek out information presented only in a particular way such as visually. This has led the study's authors to recommend that educators be disabused of these pernicious myths and instead adopt teaching practices informed by research and science (I know my co-blogger Scott is going to have something to say about that!). 

Here are some of the key findings from the Online Learning Consortium Report:

  • The survey respondents indicated they found scientific knowledge about the brain and its influence on learning to be interesting and valuable to their teaching practice, course development, and professional development.
  • Correct responses to the 23 statements, which included neuromyths and general information about the brain, ranged from 11% to 94% for instructors, instructional designers, and administrators.
  • Neuromyths to which respondents were most susceptible included:

• Listening to classical music increases reasoning ability.
• A primary indicator of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.
• Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).
• Some of us are “left-brained” and some are “right-brained” due to hemispheric dominance, and this helps explain differences in how we learn.
• We only use 10% of our brain.

  • Correct responses to the 28 statements representing evidence-based practices from the learning sciences and MBE science ranged from 26% to 99% for instructors, instructional designers, and administrators.
  • Evidence-based practices to which respondents had the greatest awareness included:

• Emotions can affect human cognitive processes, including attention, learning and memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.
• Explaining the purpose of a learning activity helps engage students in that activity.
• Maintaining a positive atmosphere in the classroom helps promote learning.
• Stress can impair the ability of the brain to encode and recall memories.
• Meaningful feedback accelerates learning.

  • Instructional designers had greater awareness of neuromyths, knowledge about the brain, and evidence-based practices than instructors and administrators.
  • There were no significant differences in (a) awareness of neuromyths and knowledge about the brain, or (b) evidence-based practices and demographic categories including: educational modality (i.e., teaching or developing courses for on-campus, blended/hybrid, online), institution level (two-year, four-year), institution
    type (public, private, for-profit), instructor role (full-time, part-time), number of years teaching, number of years as an instructional designer, gender, age, or time since highest degree completed.
  • Reading journals related to neuroscience, psychology, and MBE science increased awareness of (a) neuromyths and general information about the brain, and (b) evidence-based practices.
  • Professional development is a predictor of awareness of (a) neuromyths and general knowledge about the brain, and (b) evidence-based practices among higher education instructors, instructional designers, and administrators.

You can read the full OLC report here and the CHE story that summarizes it here.


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It seems a broad conclusion. If we follow the bunny trail of research from which the survey arises, I'm not sure we have definitive science, especially when we consider that the first generation of humans to live after the invention of smartphones and tablets has only entered middle-school. There's much work to be done on this issue. I think the take-away is that teachers should strive to accommodate a broad range of learners. To say that we don't have learning "styles" is tantamount to suggesting that learning disabilities or gifted learners are a myth. If humans all learn the same, why then do states and the federal government spend millions of dollars every year to help unique students find meaningful, substantive equity in public schools? There's more to this issue than the headlines.

Posted by: Joshua | Oct 19, 2019 10:24:00 PM

I wasn't going to say anything, but since you obviously want me to.

There is a great deal of research on how the brain learns, and what teaching and learning techniques work best. There is no reason to be teaching based on educational myths!

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Oct 18, 2019 4:06:06 PM

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