Ask Professor Pedagogy: Learning Styles
Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.
Dear Professor Pedagogy,
My students often tell me that they’re “visual learners” as they request more visual media in the course. They want more videos and less reading, more graphically organized tests (e.g., filling in charts, rather than writing paragraphs), etc. I’m uncomfortable with the requested shifts partly because they move away from the original texts (prose) and a skill they need to practice more often (writing), but I’m also wondering what to make of their self-diagnoses as “visual learners.” I know some people are big fans of the concept of learning styles and try to design activities that appeal to different learning styles. Is this a worthy effort? How seriously should I consider appealing more to my self-proclaimed “visual learners”?
Curious about Learning Styles
Ah, yes, learning styles — one of the sacred cows in education that I’d like to serve up as hamburgers! Let’s put it this way: a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. Before I grind it up, though, let’s back up and clarify what learning styles are.
Learning styles are perceived preferences for learning, often falling into the categories used by one of the most common learning styles assessment tools, VARK: visual, aural, read/write, or kinesthetic. They are typically expressed less as a preference and more as the most effective way one learns, a label that describes one’s singular mode of learning. As a result, believers argue that “optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly” (Pashler, et al., 2009, p. 105). This notion has gained “great influence within the education field,” with “a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks” and “professional development workshops for teachers and educators” (p. 105). This is the position of the folks you mention: they think they have visual learners or kinesthetic learners in their classes, so they think they should develop assignments and assessments that will help those who “learn best through visual activities” or “through movement” do well in the class.
What’s wrong with this idea? Isn’t it a good idea to develop a variety of assessment and activity types? Yes, but the rationale and application here need revisiting.
First, let me be blunt. While researchers have tried, there is no credible evidence to support this notion that matching learning styles and activities actually increases learning. A handful of psychology professors—Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork—reviewed all of the published research on learning styles to evaluate whether the concept was supported by credible evidence. Their conclusion after reviewing the hundreds of studies: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.” Many of those studies suffered from weak research design, rendering them far from convincing. Others with an effective experimental design “found results that flatly contradict the popular” assumptions about learning styles (p. 105).
Pashler and his colleagues make an interesting observation about why learning styles have gained such traction, aside from the enormous industry that supports the concept. First, people like to identify themselves and others by “type.” Such categories provide a useful shorthand for identifying personalized traits may—the thinking goes—help them navigate more effectively in the world and help others understand them. Also, the concept of learning styles appeals to the idea that learners should be recognized as “unique individuals,” rather than a number or a faceless class of students (p. 107). (Yes, I realize the paradox here: labeling someone renders him a unique individual? But the idea here is that there’s not just one kind of learner, and the differences in the classroom should be acknowledged.) Carried further, teaching to different learning styles suggests that “all people have the potential to learn effectively and easily if only instruction is tailored to their individual learning styles” (p. 107).
I would add another reason why learning styles may be so popular. They very loosely resemble the concept of metacognition, or the process of thinking about one’s thinking and learning. For instance, in a very simple example, having your students describe which study strategies and conditions for their last exam worked for them and which didn’t is likely to improve their studying on the next exam (Tanner, 2012). Integrating such metacognitive activities into the classroom—unlike learning styles—is supported by a wealth of research (e.g., Askell Williams, Lawson, & Murray-Harvey, 2007; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Butler & Winne, 1995; Isaacson & Fujita, 2006; Nelson & Dunlosky, 1991; Tobias & Everson, 2002). Importantly, metacognition is focused on planning, monitoring, and evaluating any kind of thinking about thinking and does nothing to connect one’s identity or abilities to any singular approach to knowledge.
Again, however, while the idea that we should tailor our classrooms to fit these learning styles appeals to some laudable values, there is simply no evidence to support this connection between a student’s identified learning style and how she should be taught.
There is, however, something we can take away from these different approaches to learning—not based on the learner but based on the content being learned. To explore the persistence of the belief in learning styles, CFT Assistant Director Nancy Chick interviewed Dr. Bill Cerbin, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and former Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. He pointed out that the differences identified by the labels “visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing” are more appropriately connected to the nature of the subject:
“There may be evidence that indicates that there are some ways to teach some subjects that are just better than others, despite the learning styles of individuals…. If you’re thinking about teaching sculpture, I’m not sure that long tracts of verbal descriptions of statues or of sculptures would be a particularly effective way for individuals to learn about works of art. Naturally, these are physical objects and you need to take a look at them, you might even need to handle them.” (Cerbin, 2011, 7:45-8:30)
In other words, it makes disciplinary sense to include kinesthetic activities in sculpture and anatomy courses, reading/writing activities in literature and history courses, visual activities in geography and engineering courses, and auditory activities in music, foreign language, and speech courses. This may sound obvious, but it aligns teaching and learning with the contours of the subject matter, if you will, without limiting the potential abilities of the learners.
So, Curious, rather than wasting time worrying about your visual or aural learners, think about what you teach. What mode(s) of expression most authentically represent it? Perhaps even encourage your students to think about this question. Working with a poem visually, aurally, kinesthetically, and then again textually would provide some useful “play” with the poem, allowing students to see it from different angles—with the ultimate goal of recognizing the layers of meaning uniquely provided in its original textual form. Such playing with your subject matter in the different modes might be a useful experiment for them, as long as they resist the urge to bind their identities to one of those modes.
P.S. – The CFT recently put together a guide on learning styles – read that (or any of the resources below) for an even more in-depth look at this topic.
Askell-Williams, H., Lawson, M. & Murray, Harvey, R. (2007). ‘What happens in my university classes that helps me to learn?’: Teacher education students’ instructional metacognitive knowledge. International Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1. 1-21.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L. & Cocking, R. R., (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Edition). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995) Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65, 245-281.
Cerbin, William. (2011). Understanding learning styles: A conversation with Dr. Bill Cerbin.” Interview with Nancy Chick. UW Colleges Virtual Teaching and Learning Center. https://sites.google.com/a/gapps.uwc.edu/vtlc/home/programs/podcasts/learningstylescerbin
Isaacson, R. M. & Fujita, F. (2006). Metacognitive knowledge monitoring and self-regulated learning: Academic success and reflections on learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6, 39-55.
Nelson, T.O. & Dunlosky, J. (1991). The delayed-JOL effect: When delaying your judgments of learning can improve the accuracy of your metacognitive monitoring. Psychological Science, 2, 267-270.
Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9.3 103-119.
Tanner, Kimberly D. (2012). Promoting Student Metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 11. 113-120.
Tobias, S., & Everson, H. (2002). Knowing what you know and what you don’t: Further research on metacognitive knowledge monitoring. College Board Report No. 2002-3. College Board, NY.