The Straight Dope on Learning Styles

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The glorious truth is that people think and learn differently. Some people like words, but not pictures, some like movements rather than sounds. Why are people different? Who knows, perhaps because Allah loves wondrous variety.

A funny thing is that we have the tendency to ignore this fact. Perhaps because empathy is difficult, perhaps because learning makes itself invisible. I have a dear friend, Cat, who doesn’t have visual imagery. When she thinks of a dog, for example, she doesn’t see one in her mind’s eye. She doesn’t see anything. When she dreams she rarely has pictures — she just knows what is happening in the dream. People often don’t believe this. They think that everyone must experience their inner world in pictures, the way they do. Sorry. People are just different. Some always see things when they imagine them, some don’t. Some people have a sense of pitch, some don’t. So it goes.

So the idea of learning styles makes a lot of intuitive sense. Surely if we know that people think and learn differently, we should be able to design our teaching to take advantage of different learning styles. Right?

This is where we hit problems. Are learners either primarily visual, auditory, kinesthetic (as claimed in NLP)? Or are they primarily analytic, creative or pragmatic (as proposed by Robert Sternberg). Is the world made of Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators and Accomodators? Maybe instead we should use the Myers-Briggs categories of Sensers, Intuitors, Thinkers and Feelers?

Faced with these possibilities an academic psychologist has a standard set of questions they would like answered: can you really divide people up into a particular set of categories? Are the tests for these categories reliable; if you take the test twice will you come out the same both times? Are the categories you are trying to use related to how people learn? If you use a theory of learning styles, do people learn better? Can you use learning styles to predict who will benefit most from particular styles of instruction? Does using a learning styles system – any system – for teaching have other effects on learners or teachings, such as making them more confident or making them expend more effort?

These questions stem from the way academic psychologists systematically approach topics: we like to establish the truth of psychological claims. If someone comes to us with a theory about learning styles we want to know (a) if learning styles really exist, (b) if they really are associated with better learning and also (c) if, when learning styles are taken into account, learning is better because of something about the specific learing style theory rather than just being a side effect of an increase in teacher confidence, effort or somesuch.

So, what have academic psychologists found out about learning styles? We know that some of the supposed categories of learning styles are actually dimensions that vary continuously across the population. For example visual imagery: it is not that some people are visual thinkers, it is that most people have some visual imagery and a few have very strong imagery and a few, like my friend Cat, have less than average. We also know that people can change their learning styles over time, for different tasks and in different contexts. We also know that it is very difficult to prove that teaching that uses learning styles is better because of the particular theory of learning styles used, rather than merely because a learning style theory, any learning style theory, is being used and this makes people pay more attention to what they are doing.

Learning styles seem intuitively sensible. Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation. But there is no strong evidence that any one theory of learning styles is the best, or most true, compared to the others. Learning style theories can be useful without being true, and it isn’t clear that knowing the truth about the differences in how people learn will be immediately useful or produce a more useful theory of learning styles. This difference between truth and utility is a typical dilemma of psychology.

Sadly, the headlines for this conclusion aren’t snappy. It is easier to say that “Some people are visual thinkers and others are auditory thinkers” than it is to say that “Thinking about presenting information in different sensory modalities will make your teaching more varied and help those you are teaching who have different preferences to yourself”. Using a learning style theory is great, but you lose a lot of flexibility and potential for change if you start to believe that the theory is based on proven facts about the way the world is, rather than just being a useful set of habits and suggestions which might, sometimes, help guide us through the maze of teaching and learning.

Cross-posted at schoolofeverything.com

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Image: jelly belly by House of Sims

6 Comments

  1. madnessanddreams
    Posted January 28, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU! Seriously, I have had to take so many quizzes to see “what kind of learner” I am and it gets rather annoying. You do get to see which set of divisions is currently in fashion at your school/with your teacher (I’ve done all four of the systems you listed above). But generally, treating the divisions like they are based on hard facts and solid division lines usually ends up an exercise in absurdity. Now if only I could explain this to the Associate Dean of my department who is just in LOVE with Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators and Accomodators and has made them a huge part of a new class on “leadership,” required of all students in my department that entered since ’06. Yay for more useless credits!

  2. Posted January 28, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Generally if you have children, it’s easy to see that they have different ways of learning, even though there might not be a viable system of learning styles at this point. The problem I see is that the curriculum is so broad, that a teacher doesn’t have the time to attend to children’s different learning styles. A sensory rich curriculum is wonderful, but that only addresses one aspect of learning styles, ie which senses are more engaging/developed for a particular child.

  3. Posted January 28, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for mentioning your friend Cat – I have a similar condition and it’s only thanks to the internet that I’m aware there are others like me.
    I have almost no ability to visualize anything in my “mind’s eye”. Even things I’ve seen a million times are still kind of abstract in my head, although I recognize them when I see them.
    Curiously, my dreams tend to be as visual as anybody’s, and there’s a period right before I fall asleep when I can consciously visualize.

  4. Sonia
    Posted January 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for an interesting article. I do believe that there are distinctive learning styles, but the delineations are not hard & fast or very clear. For instance, I personally tend to flip back and forth between visual and verbal methods of processing information, and probably many others do the same. When reading, I often diagram, and in drawing, often annotate.
    Problems with “learning styles” seem to emerge when educators try to make one style apply to all students. I think the key is to “know thyself”. Learning is really the responsibility of the learner; and the more strategically he can tailor his approach to the subject to suit his style–whether that be visually, verbally, constructively, etc.–the more effectively he’ll learn.

  5. Josie
    Posted February 1, 2009 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    The whole thing has seemed very shallow when I have been taught about it in rather micky mouse teaching courses.
    The key thing for me is not visual vs auditory, it is linear vs non-linear, or words vs non-words. My Masters course which was dominated by science/engineering types gave us masses of map diagrams with little boxes and words and arrows everywhere. To me that is completely incomprehensible chaos. To understand something I need it in words- nice and linear. Another philsophy graduate on the course said that she was having difficulty with the course for the same reason, but I didn’t do a survey so I don’t know if anyone actually likes this way of recieving material. My guess is that science people may not dislike it so much, or at least be more used to it.

  6. Posted June 9, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    It might be interesting to note that research has not shown that teaching to people’s “learning styles” or “learning preferences” improves learning.
    It’s true people have preferences for learning. And it’s even true that you’d best use certain presentation modes for certain subjects. For example, it’s been found that visuals are very important for learning chemistry. But it is not true that teaching students according to their preferences increases learning.
    See Chapter 7 of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Wilingham for a detailed discussion of this topic as well as references.
    And while it may be true that a theory can be useful without being true (I can’t see how though) the theory that teaching to learning styles or preferences is not useful. It just makes more work for teachers and if they believe the hypothesis is fact, they can ignore the fact that it’s not improving results.
    Instead of trying to force various learning approaches onto each topic it’s best for teachers to use the modes of presentation that best fits the material and the age, maturity and life-experiences of their audience. This of course is just plain common sense.


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