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Learning Styles: Fact and Fiction – A Conference Report

Posted by on Friday, January 28, 2011 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Back in November I attended the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio. I thought I’d share some session highlights with my Vanderbilt colleagues. Here’s the third in a series of posts about the conference. This post is longer than the earlier posts in the series, but the topic warrants the extra length.

The Truth about Learning Styles – Linda Nilson Clemson University

When I asked D. Christopher Brooks what he thought about learning styles prior to Linda Nilson’s keynote on this topic, he pointed me to Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham’s recent Change article, “The Myth of Learning Styles.” The authors argue that “learners are different from each other, these differences affect their performance, and teachers should take these differences into account.” This is a nice summary of what How People Learn calls learner-centered instruction, which is well supported by cognitive science research.  Learners’ prior knowledge and experience matter, and every student’s prior knowledge and experience is unique. The authors also note that students do indeed have preferences for how they learn.  However, they argue, “When these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not.”

Riener and Willingham cite the recent meta-analysis of relevant research by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork in Psychological Science in the Public Interest that found no evidence of the so-called matching hypothesis, the idea that matching one’s teaching style to one’s students’ learning styles improves learning. They note that the matching hypothesis hasn’t been subjected to a lot of very rigorous research, but what research has been conducted has failed to turn up evidence for the hypothesis. There’s some controversy over this finding, but I think that it’s a reasonably solid one, particularly given what Linda shared at her keynote.

Are there learning styles?  That’s the question that Linda Nilson answered in her keynote. See her slides for all the details, but the short version is that several popular learning styles models, including Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, the VARK model (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic), the Kolb learning style model, and the Myers-Briggs personality model, have very little predictive validity. That is, a student’s “style” as determined by one of these tests doesn’t have an effect on how well they learn through various activities. (To be fair, the Myers-Briggs model isn’t meant to predict how students learn best. It’s a personality inventory that is geared more towards interpersonal dynamics and career choice.)

Is there a learning style model with reasonable predictive validity? Yes, according to Linda. The Felder-Silverman model has “good construct and predictive validity” within the context of teaching engineering students. The Felder-Silverman model isn’t as well known as the other models listed here, but given its greater validity, it’s worth being familiar with. The model identifies four dimensions of cognitive processing: active vs. reflective, sensing vs. intuitive, visual vs. verbal, and sequential vs. global.  Knowing where a student falls on these dimensions can indeed help predict how students will engage with various learning activities.

Does this provide evidence in favor of the matching hypothesis? Linda didn’t talk explicitly about the matching hypothesis, but I gathered that the predictive validity of this model isn’t so strong as to “prove” the matching hypothesis. Instead, the model is useful for predicting the ways that students will approach learning tasks. Visual students will focus on images provided to them, whereas verbal students will try to get traction on a problem by reading the text of it, and so on.

Linda encouraged us to move away from talking about learning “styles” and towards talking about teaching “modalities.” She made three important points about modalities, drawn from cognitive science:

  1. Visual thinking tools help everyone. Visual teaching modalities lead to deeper, more conceptual learning since visuals can provide the “big picture” as to how concepts are related. Visuals also promote longer retention and easier retrieval of information. See Linda’s slides and the visual thinking teaching guide Maria Ebner and I wrote for lots of ideas on this topic.
  2. Use the best modality or modalities for the content. While there’s little evidence that matching one’s teaching style to one’s students’ learning styles helps them learn, there’s much stronger evidence that matching one’s teaching style to one’s content is wise. Linda’s examples included using experiential learning for teaching students how to do something physical, using reading and auditory activities to teach poetry, and using a variety of modalities to teach recent history. This last example leads to Linda’s third point…
  3. People learn new material best when they encounter it multiple times and through multiple modalities. Since different modalities activate different parts of the brain, when students encounter new material in many different ways, they’re in a better position to make more sense of the material.

Here’s my personal anecdote on that last item: During my senior year of college, I participated in a foreign study in England and Ireland through my university. While we were in Ireland, we focused on the troubled history of that country in the 20th century. The textbook on this topic we read before traveling was informative, but incredibly dry. Watching the 1996 Liam Neeson movie Michael Collins, a biopic about one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, helped provide a narrative for one thread of the topic. Actually visiting the locations described in the textbook and dramatized in the movie made the stories and information more concrete for me, and hearing from various Irish experts while we were there helped me connect the history we had studied to the current political state of the country. Any one of these modalities would have been insufficient for me to get a handle on the 20th century history of Ireland (particularly that textbook!), but their combination was incredibly effective.

Here are two other quick takeaways on this topic that emerged in the Twitter backchannel during the keynote:

  • Students can learn how to learn in particular modalities more effectively. That’s the idea behind metacognition.
  • As useful as visual tools are, some students have visual impairments that prevent them from using those tools fully. Eric Stoller and I had a great conversation on Twitter about this during Linda’s keynote. Be sensitive to accessibility issues when using different modalities.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this link, shared by Todd Zakrajsek in his session at Lilly. It’s from the Onion: “Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum.” Enjoy!

Image: “345/365 touch-up,” Katie Harris, Flickr (CC)

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