Learning Styles Research Stirs Debate

Learning Styles ResearchBy: Pam Kessinger, PCC Faculty Librarian

May 4, 2010

A recent study by Harold Pasher et. al., “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” was heralded on The Chronicle of Higher Education website with the blaring headline “Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students.” David Glenn did a reasonable job of summarizing the outcomes of the study, though he may have over-emphasized the more controversial aspects of it. (The article was later printed in The Chronicle as “Customized Teaching Fails a Test.”)

Glenn states that “…now four psychologists argue that you were told wrong. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the ‘matching’ idea….And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt in the classroom.” Jay Mathews in the Washington Post summarized the hysteria as “learning styles are hogwash.”

At this point I turned to ask myself, really?

What about all the anecdotal evidence for the trend towards visual learning in younger students? Are not problem-based learning and active learning techniques more engaging to reluctant learners? Doesn’t it help students to present course content with context, and ways to connect to prior learning?

It is inconceivable for me to consider reverting to the teaching style I used years ago or to the learning style I used in my own college experience even further back: sit for a lecture by a professor, who stood at a lectern, while I took binders full of hand-written notes, trying to simultaneously process the information, listen, and keep my questions until the end.

In the late-eighties instructional excellence training emphasized the importance of creating learning environments which would incorporate the primary learning style components—visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile—and by the mid-nineties, the added reading/analytical factor. Discoveries in neuroscience and research studies in the links between personality type, learning preferences, and dimensions of cognitive development further informed the debate about approaches to teaching.

The main point of the Pasher study was in seeking empirical evidence about the effectiveness of instructors attempting to match teaching style to their students’ learning style, an investigation the authors claim heretofore not done. It is a valuable exercise, and it raises some important questions. Isn’t it impossible to constantly and consistently teach with all learning styles accounted for, every minute? Might you be stressing yourself out unnecessarily in attempting to teach in a way that is so foreign from your own style, without enough student achievement improvement to justify the effort?

Pasher recommends “further research,” of course, but here’s the key for me in the current debate: when students identify their own learning style, and define their own particular needs for themselves, they can begin the all-important journey to taking responsibility for their learning.

ABE and DE instructors have emphasized to me that when students take some type of learning styles inventory, they realize several important truths. Though they may have a learning disability, there are strategies to compensate for it. And most important, people learn differently. It is, in other words, okay to need to draw diagrams, do an activity, or ask for the context of the information in order to remember a new concept.

When I work to develop or select teaching strategies of various modalities, by default I make my performance in front of a class more interesting. I consciously put myself into the frame of mind for connecting with every student in a class.

I may not be able to avoid lapsing into the teaching style most comfortable to me, or expecting students to use the learning style most familiar to how I view the world. My check against that is to pay attention to student engagement, and when any students start to appear disconnected, I remind myself to pause and use some technique to re-engage their attention or participation.

How do you inform your art of teaching? I have found considering learning styles and multiple intelligences invaluable. I welcome research in the area of application, but see the headlines here as oversimplifying at best.

Recommended Resources

Tools to Offer Students

Works Cited

Library & Learning
Vol. 2 Issue 3 May 2010

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