MythBusters: Learning Styles

by SC

“If there’s something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters)
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters).”

What the Research says about Learning Styles?

Background:

For the purposes of this assignment, we have chosen to suggest an approach for a school in the Western suburbs of Sydney, with an ethnically and linguistically diverse student body. Being engaged in professional development, the school has noticed the discourse of learning styles in professional spheres and wants to investigate before adopting it as school practice. The following is a paper evaluating the research on learning styles, and suggests an approach for the school to take.

Introduction:

The term “learning styles” is the constructed concept that “individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study that is most effective for them”. Over the last fifty years, the myth of ‘Learning Styles’ has become one of the most popular aspects of educational theory, with it gaining traction amongst the wider academic circles. Pashler et al., states this education theory is very alluring because it presents an easy solution to the paradox of teaching inherently different students within a mass production system. However the popularity of this myth ventures into the field of pseudo-science as its catchy narrative is overwhelmingly unsupported by the current research. Furthermore Pashler et al. states that with the constant active promotion from vendors offering different tests, assessment devices and online technologies, it has allowed educational institutions to easily identify students learning styles, and adapt their instructional approaches accordingly.

It cannot be denied that it is important to recognise that students are diverse and learn differently, whether it is culturally, linguistically or cognitively. The concept of learning styles may seem like a credible approach to cater for this diversity, however there has been limited evidence supporting it. There is some evidence of neural correlation with a preferred learning preference, for example Kraemer, Rosenberg & Thompson-Schill (2008) had the first set of data that showed a neural correlation with a stated style preference, which suggested that those who are associated with the verbal style have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations. However, in the majority of the research on learning styles, students who used their preferred learning styles did not fare significantly better than students who were prevented from using their preferred style. It is therefore important that educators are aware that learning styles are not reliable predictors of the most appropriate learning style for any given student.

Alternatively, Huebner suggests the use of “differentiated instruction to effectively address all students’ learning needs”. It cannot be denied that students come from complex backgrounds with a diversity of language, ability and prior knowledge in any given area. They will also have a preference with the way that they learn and retain information. However, evidence suggests that implementing differentiated instruction, rather than teaching to a single style or ability, proves to be the most effective when addressing diverse student learning needs. Instead of grouping students into learning styles, understanding how to promote student engagement and motivation, assessing student readiness and having effective classroom management procedures can enrich the student learning process. Huebner further affirms this statement by stating it is important to understand that with differentiated instruction, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, instead it builds upon the prior knowledge, interests and abilities that students bring to the classroom.

The Myth of Learning Styles

Massa and Meyer’s study was very effective at highlighting the wide divide between what is the popular narrative and what is academically supported. Altogether Massa and Meyer performed three separate experiments to test whether or not ‘visual learners’ and ‘verbal learners’ excelled when multimedia instruction was given in their respective fields, in a total of 51 cases, 49 showed little or no evidence, for learning styles, with some even showing evidence against.

When Massa and Meyer’s first experiment involving 52 participants showed no evidence to support the learning styles education system, they attempted the exact same experiment in a different context. In the first experiment, the mean age was 18 years old with all the participants coming from the Psychology pool at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In experiment two it, the participants were non-college educated adults, with 15 out of the 61 having high school as their highest level of education. However despite the shift in demographics, the results to experiment two were very similar, with no significant increases in academic scoring in 14 of the 15 experiments.

Out of the 51 cases, 52.94% (27/51) of the time, the results showed a minute leaning towards the expected direction (visual learners getting slightly better results on visual instruction), whilst 47.05% (24/51) the results headed towards the opposite direction. These scores highlight how inconsistent this educational theory is and that there was close to an equal chance of a person either benefiting or not benefitting from learning styles classrooms.

Instead it was found that adding images to aid any form of instruction was a benefit to both ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ learners, further discrediting the notion that people can be cleanly categorized into either element. This has been validated by studies such as Mayer and Moreno (2002) and Austin (2009) who found multimedia which incorporated animation and narration were consistently shown to be the most effective when it came to student’s retention of knowledge and academic scores.

The Argument for Learning Styles

One of the most significant reasons that the learning style theory gained momentum was due to educators realising that each child is different in the way that they learn and process knowledge. In their book “The Importance of Learning Styles,” Sims and Sims assert that learning opportunities need to be designed with the strengths and weakness of the child in mind. This is an argument which stands true to this day, even though the nuances of the words ‘strengths and weaknesses’ have evolved since then. In Sims and Sims’ time, the goal of learning styles assessment was to “make distinctions that lead to meaningful differences”. This was carried out through theories such as the Experiential Learning Theory presented by Kolb and the Learning Styles model proposed by Grasha-Reichmann. Both of these researchers were making nascent responses to the dilemma which arose from the acknowledgement of individual differences, or perhaps preferences, for perceiving and processing information. Since then, research on differentiated instruction by ability level and all forms of expression have developed these ideas.

The preconceived notions of some researchers have inhibited the critical analysis of data leading some to believe that what was measured was an indicator of different learning styles. Sprenger states that differentiation strategies such as tweaking the content or making instructional changes, need to be implemented after analysing the student’s “learning profile” or style of learning (2008, p.xvi). For qualitative researchers such as Sprenger (2008), who work with small scale case studies or take part in action research in their own classrooms, the idea that a child’s behaviour can indicate the child’s cognitive processes would have been almost self evident as it would have been observable evidence.

Massa and Mayer (2006), although critical of the learning style theory, acknowledges that in their study a correlation between cognitive style measures and processing measures were found where an individual’s professed learning style (visual or verbal) matched with how heavily they relied on help represented through the two styles. However, these findings are few and far between. Given the dominance of the learning styles discourse, it is very possible that researchers and participants alike were unwittingly primed to form these conclusions.

Conclusion

The basic idea of cognitive styles, that different individuals process certain types of information differently, has appeared in many forms and has been part of many theories in various avenues of psychological research. Despite this widespread interest, however, a precise description of what constitutes a cognitive style, both from a behavioral and from a biological perspective, remains elusive.

Although many schools are still inclined to adopt the concept of learning styles into their pedagogy, we would advise not to use it as a basis for teacher practice due to the lack of evidence for it. An overwhelming proportion of the evidence is based on ‘preferences’ instead of an assessment of cognition, or contain flawed and insufficient methodology. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that in fact, what can be described as ‘learning styles’ has no significant impact on achievement.

Given these findings, we encourage the school to adopt the approach of differentiation, where pedagogy is designed to treat students as individuals based on their ability, prior knowledge, literacy and appropriate forms of engagement and management.

This was written by Gi Eun Lee, Kasturi Murugavel, Erica Sung and myself; SC. Thank you for being an amazing team, even if it was for a short period of time.