Study questions learning-style research

But to prove that teaching to preferred learning styles helps students learn more effectively, the researchers wrote, any credible study needs “robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding.”

The report explains: “First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: The instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.”

Upon reviewing major learning-style studies, the researchers say they found “virtually no evidence” that teaching to learning styles helps students learn, simply because few studies have used an experimental methodology capable of testing the scientific validity of the learning-style approach. According to the researchers, those studies that did use an appropriate method found results that flatly contradict the learning-style theory. The studies reviewed by the researchers are detailed in the report.

The researchers said there are many reasons why the theory has become entrenched in current educational practice, despite the absence of scientific proof that it works. For one thing, since the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test became popular, many people “seem to find the idea of finding out ‘what type of person one is’ appealing,” says the report. Also, if their children are not succeeding or excelling in school, it might be more comfortable for many people to think the educational system is responsible, and not their children.

The researchers note that just because no scientifically based research has validated the learning-style theory, this does not mean that students don’t have learning preferences. However, “the existence of preferences says nothing about what these preferences might mean or imply for anything else, much less whether it is sensible for educators to take account of these preferences,” they write.

The report maintains that further research is needed to validate the learning-style theory. But should schools really stop funding the tools and training needed to help teach to various learning styles, as the researchers suggest?

Basing the effectiveness of instructional approaches on test scores alone is not an accurate way of measuring whether students are learning, Knezek said.

“We need to inspire students to learn, and part of that is trying to tailor learning to different styles, or preferences, of learning,” he said. “Education is not going to get anywhere by bashing the process of discovering student preferences, and it certainly won’t help curb the current dropout rates. Students are saying they are bored with learning. One way we can make learning relevant and exciting for them is by finding out what they prefer, how they want to learn, and tailoring instruction to that.”

But, he acknowledged, the report does help set a research agenda that could benefit future educational practices.

Rather than assessing students’ learning styles and then targeting instruction accordingly, perhaps a better approach would be to integrate all of the various modalities into one’s instruction, said Mel Riddile, associate director of high school services at NASSP and the organization’s 2006 High School Principal of the Year.

This approach, commonly referred to as Universal Design for Learning, still recognizes that students might learn best in different ways, but it gives every student multiple ways of acquiring and demonstrating knowledge. Creating such a flexible learning environment can accommodate differences in how individual students learn—without requiring a learning-style test.

Many educators say they are “held accountable for differentiating instruction, but I really haven’t seen a lot of teachers being told, ‘You must create assessments and instruction based on student learning styles,’” Riddile said. “And I certainly wouldn’t recommend spending time and money on an idea that isn’t evidence-based. Schools have a limited budget now, and I don’t see that ending any time soon. Schools need to identify different leverage points for funding, such as literacy instruction or math proficiency, and fund practices that are proven to help students learn.”

Meris Stansbury

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