Study questions learning-style research

Learning styles, including visual or auditory, have become widely popular in education.
Teaching to different learning styles, such as visual or auditory, has become widely popular in education.

As educators struggle to define effective 21st-century instruction, one practice that many have viewed as fundamental to teaching and learning has come under new fire: catering to different learning styles.

According to a new review of existing research, scientists have yet to show conclusively that students learn better when they are taught according to their preferred modality—and the study’s authors say it’s time to stop funding a technique that hasn’t been proven effective.

Commissioned by Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the main journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the study is called “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” It was written by Harold Pashler, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego; Mark McDaniel, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis; Doug Rohrer, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida; and Robert Bjork, distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The researchers—all cognitive psychologists with an interest in the science of learning, and how to develop studies so they’re helpful to teachers and students—reviewed all major studies that promoted the effectiveness of teaching to different learning styles to see whether those studies had reached valid conclusions.

The researchers found that, out of thousands of studies purporting to show the effectiveness of teaching to different learning styles, none managed to prove scientifically that students learn better when taught according to their preferred modality.

According to the researchers, if there is no evidence that teaching to different learning styles works, school funds that support learning style assessments and teaching tools should be diverted to support evidence-based teaching practices instead.

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded. “If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Some advocates of education technology have responded to the researchers’ report with skepticism, arguing that anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

“As a parent and former teacher, I wouldn’t be quite so quick to discount teaching to learning styles. All I need to do is look at my son’s learning to know that,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education.

The report’s findings could have important implications for the ed-tech field, which has benefited from the idea that students learn best in different ways. For example, many educators have used multimedia to differentiate their instruction, so that students who are considered “auditory” learners might listen to a lecture, while those who are considered “visual” learners might watch a video clip of the same information.

Proponents of the learning-style theory believe that effective instruction requires “diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly,” according to the report. It notes that the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) helped develop a widely distributed learning-style test in the 1980s.

Meris Stansbury

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