Researchers question learning-styles theory

September 26, 2011 12:24:44 PM PDT
For years, the conventional wisdom has been that everyone has a different dominant way of learning. Some are visual learners who prefer studying pictures or graphics. Some say they are auditory learners, absorbing information best through lectures and conversation. Others consider themselves kinesthetic learners who benefit from hands-on activities.

A robust industry has formed, marketing materials to educators for dozens of learning-style models. There are tools based on a learner's personality type. Others are based on how analytical or creative individuals are. Some even delve into the optimal lighting and seating for workspaces. Teachers can buy various assessment tools for students or attend training sessions or conferences to learn how to best tailor their instruction.

But a group of four psychologists, including professors from UC San Diego and UCLA, have reviewed historical data and say there is little scientific evidence to support the learning-styles theory.

"Clearly, people have distinctive abilities and aptitudes. Some people have higher visual ability, and some have higher auditory ability," said UCSD professor Hal Pashler, lead author on the report. "But the question is whether that predicts anything about the most effective way to teach them. ... There is a complete lack of evidence of the sort."

Pashler's article, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, has been criticized by some academics and learning-style practitioners. Some say his team did not conduct a thorough review of the hundreds of articles and studies published on the subject. Some believe the criteria set by Pashler's team was overly rigid and formal.

Pashler and his colleagues analyzed journal articles, dissertations and other materials, looking for data that proved an advantage when students are taught in their preferred or dominant learning style.

The psychologists reasoned that in order to prove an advantage, students must be randomly assigned to teachers engaged in different learning styles and then given the same test. If there is an advantage, they said, students taught in their dominant learning style must have different test results from those who were not.

Pashler and his colleagues acknowledge there is an enormous amount of literature on learning styles. But they found few experiments testing the concept in a way that met their criteria. Of the ones they found, there was no conclusive advantage.

People oftentimes say they have a preferred way of learning, Pashler said. His team identified one study published in 2006 in which students' instruction was matched with their preferred learning style. The results, he said, showed the students did not perform any better.

Critics of his article include Susan Rundle, a learning-styles consultant and past director of the International Learning Styles Network, which was highlighted in Pashler's article for selling several assessment tools to educators.

"People are entitled to their viewpoint," Rundle said. "But there are hundreds, even thousands of parents, students, individuals and businesses that have used learning styles to improve performance and academic improvement. They're (Pashler and his colleagues are) basically saying that all these people don't know what they're talking about."

Rundle has spent the past 18 years working with learning styles and says she remains convinced there are benefits to tailored instruction. She cites research published in the Journal of Urban Education, showing that teachers who used the learning-style model have boosted reading and math standardized test scores. Students grasp new material better, she says, when they are first taught in their dominant learning style and then followed up with other styles.

So what are teachers to make of these conflicting views?

Both camps agree on one thing: Using a diverse range of teaching styles is important for all students.

"I think teachers should be thinking a lot about the clearest way to communicate what they're trying to do," Pashler said, "and make it engaging."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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