Learning Styles – So What?

March 9, 2010

I grew up without a learning style. In fact, it wasn’t until after I left the United States, got a teaching job at a university, returned to the States, and got another teaching job, that I first ran into the phrase “learning style”. When I first heard the term, I quickly pigeon-holed it as “”style, not substance”, but I found out almost immediately that this was a dangerous mistake. People, students, parents, colleagues, believed in learning styles. Many of them could tell me that they (or someone they knew) really only learned in a particular way and good teachers arranged their teaching accordingly. Who was I to argue? I started believing it myself. (A bit of truthiness here: it was actually quite rare for anyone to ever ask for a particular type of teaching. Therefore, acknowledging and accepting the probable existence of learning styles was more convenient than stubborn denial would have ever been.

But now a study titled “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by H. Pashler et al. at UC-San Diego (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Dec. 2009, 109(3), p. 105) calls this into question. They begin by stating a logical and rigorous standard by which learning styles can be evaluated (for a quick explanation, see “Random Samples”, Science, 8 January 2010, 327, 129). Very few studies of learning styles achieve this standard, and those that do, fail to show that people learn better when their preferred learning style is accommodated.

This doesn’t rule out the possibility of future work establishing a basis for learning styles, but it doesn’t exist yet. In the authors’ words,

“at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learningstyles assessments into general educational practice … However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.”

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