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Ask an Educator: Should We Teach to Learning Styles?

  • 7 Min Read

In my work with educators, I often hear about pedagogical needs, interests and challenges. One common theme that often comes up is the concept of teaching to different “learning styles.” But what does the research actually tell us about the science behind learning styles? And what about the impact on students of adjusting our teaching to accommodate different learning styles in the classroom? In this blog, we’ll discuss both of those questions and more as we explore the value of teaching to learning styles.

What Are Learning Styles?

The concept of “learning styles” dates to the 1970s and refers to the idea that students differ in the way they prefer to take in and process information. Various inventories describe styles differently, but they’re typically based in the senses, such as visual, aural or kinesthetic. The theory is that matching instruction to learning styles produces a more effective learning environment for students. For example, a student with a strong aural learning style would process verbal content more successfully than a visual graphic would. The idea is that teachers can learn their students’ learning styles and adjust teaching accordingly in order to make learning “easier” for their students. Sounds great, right? The short answer is no.

An early literature review investigating the effectiveness of teaching to learning styles (Pashler, et al., 2009) shows very little empirical evidence that teaching to learning styles enhances student learning. As this pedagogical approach would require considerable work and adjustment on the part of the educator, it’s important to ensure the work validated in the literature is effective. A more recent study (Cimermanova, 2018) validated these findings, showing no evidence of improved learning using learning styles.

If Learning Styles Have Been Debunked, Why Do They Persist?

I’ll admit it completely makes sense to think that someone would learn “better” by engaging in a learning environment that feels comfortable to them—one that supports their preferred style of interaction. If I feel really engaged when I watch a video yet my mind wanders when I listen to a podcast, then it makes sense to assume that I’ll learn better when information is presented visually. But research doesn’t back this notion. Learning doesn’t happen when something is easy. As described in a post on The College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin website, the inverse is true; learning happens when we are challenged. However, we feel better and more successful when learning feels easy. If it feels easy, that means I understood it, right? Wrong. If it was easy, you either already knew it or you won’t remember it later. As UCLA’s Dr. Robert Bjork has outlined in his work on desirable difficulties, mastery comes through challenge, not through ease. We (and our students) just don’t want that to be true, because it means we’d have to work harder and potentially fail.

How Failure Can Help Drive Higher Learning

If students everywhere have one thing in common, it is a desire to avoid the dreaded “F” grade. Research by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke of the Washington University in St. Louis has shown, however, that providing opportunities for students to test their knowledge—and even fail when doing so—actually enhances future performance and long-term recall. This is because testing is an active process, as opposed to reading and rereading, which are more passive activities. Thinking about it in this way, the idea of teaching to learning styles offers information to students in a way that makes it easy for them to interact with the information, creating a more passive environment. However, if we create opportunities for interactions that challenge students, they are more actively engaged cognitively, and therefore more likely to experience higher learning. The downside is that challenging students increases the chance of failure, so we must find ways to allow for failure in a safe space.

To Make the Best Pedagogical Choices, Learn About Your Students

If the research is “iffy” (at best) in validating a positive association between teaching to learning styles and actual learning, then what is a faculty member to do?

I don’t subscribe to any “one size fits all” approach to teaching. I expect and hope that one faculty member’s classroom is different from another’s, even while they are teaching the same course. Teaching is personal. It’s personal to the teacher and personal to the students. But what kind of information should we consider about our students when making pedagogical choices? What should we spend time learning about our students, if not their learning styles?

First and foremost, we should consider the background knowledge of our students in the given content area. What do they know? What do they think they know? What preconceptions and misconceptions do they have? Additionally, knowing students’ interest in the content is important, as this will help us gauge their motivation to learn. A student who is highly interested may not need as structured a learning environment as a student who isn’t. The motivated student is more likely to be self-regulated. Try to tailor your teaching to meet your students where they are.

Learning about our students allows us to make appropriate choices when it comes to the level of challenges we present. For students with strong misconceptions and weak background knowledge, we will need to scaffold our instruction and the types of challenges we present to them in order to build up appropriate knowledge and skill in the subject area.

Let Your Students Know That Challenges Are a Good Thing

Communicating the benefits of challenging learning environments is essential. When we teach to learning styles, we can create a passive environment for learners, whereas a more active learning approach is more challenging and requires extra work on the part of the student. It doesn’t “feel” easy. (Which is good; it shouldn’t be.) We need to let students know that the challenge is a good thing, their learning will be enhanced by it and we are there to guide them when the inevitable—failure—happens. By giving students opportunities to fail in a safe environment, we allow them to feel more comfortable taking chances and stretching their skills. Short, frequent and low-stakes assessments can provide a safe place to fail as well as an opportunity to practice the skills needed for higher-stakes assessments.

When we are designing learning experiences, it’s important to consider aspects about our students that the research has proven to have an impact on their learning. Although the learning styles concept is widespread and popular among educators, the empirical research on its efficacy is weak. Instead, research suggests we consider the background knowledge (including misconceptions and preconceptions) and motivation of our students when we’re deciding on our pedagogical approach.

It may not be the easiest path to follow, but challenges are good, right?

A special guest in the Teaching and Learning Studio, Dr. Amy Simolo is a senior customer success manager at D2L who works with higher education clients. Previously, Amy spent over 10 years as a faculty development professional, training faculty teaching in both face-to-face and online environments.

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