Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

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