Riddile added that he has witnessed many educators asking students about their learning styles, or preferences, through questionnaires.

“I think this is more to let the student know that they care about how the student feels most comfortable and what his or her interests are, and also to give educators an idea about the students,” he said. “This is common sense: knowing how your students get motivated. But without research, it’s still just a guessing game as to how they learn best. Basing formal assessments on these styles is not recommended.”

Like Riddile, Tracy Gray, director of the National Center for Technology Innovation, believes the answer to effective teaching and learning can be found more in universal design principles than in learning-style assessment.

“Teachers will be better served by teaching according to content, student needs, and universal design principles rather than trying to identify which types of learners they have in their class and trying to tailor instruction to be hands-on when the content doesn’t warrant it. They’re more likely to serve student needs by applying Universal Design for Learning to their teaching than by trying to diagnose learning styles,” Gray said.

She added: “The assertion that students might prefer one way of learning, but don’t necessarily do worse by learning in a non-preferred manner, is good for the field … as well.”

Ken Koedinger, a cognitive science researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed.

“Given a student has a learning style, say is a ‘visual learner,’ is it better to teach to the student’s strength, by using more visual images, or to compensate for the student’s weakness, by improving the audio or textual aspects of the instruction? The answer is probably a little of both,” he said. “And guess what? That leads you back to making both the visual and audio aspects of instruction as good as possible for all learners. I think the results of this study are important, because so many people seem to believe that teaching to learning styles is the answer.”

Koedinger said this doesn’t mean educators should not individualize instruction for students, just that learning styles “may be the wrong place to focus [their] differentiation.”

He added: “There is lots of evidence that individualizing instruction based on students’ prior knowledge of a topic leads to more effective and efficient learning. Students entering an algebra class vary much more on their prior knowledge—for instance, their skills with fractions and negative numbers—than they do in their learning styles. And the instructional strategy is clear: Move on for concepts and skills that a student knows well. Slow down or double back for ones they do not.”

Koedinger said a second area where individualization can work is with respect to student interests.

“For instance, students read more, and thus may learn more, when they are given reading assignments selected to match their interest areas,” he said. He acknowledged there is not as much research in this area, but added: “There is real promise.”

Links:

“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”

International Society for Technology in Education

National Center for Technology Innovation

Carnegie Mellon

National Association of Secondary School Principals

Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences