Learning styles: The Loch Ness Monster of education

In our new ‘Critical Perspectives’ series of blog posts, we have asked staff from around the university to write critically about a topic of interest. Matt Sillars from Inverness College UHI starts us off with his thoughts on Learning Styles.

Learning styles have become deeply embedded as an appropriate tool with which to identify the preferred, or dominant, way a person learns, in order to tailor teaching to ‘fit’ that person’s style more effectively. The idea of a learning style appeals to our common sense understanding of how we learn: we have a gut feeling that we learn better ourselves by ‘doing’ rather than ‘reading’, or that we are a ‘visual’ learner. But should gut feelings be the way to design and deliver education in an evidence-led world when there is little, or no evidence that there is such a thing as a learning style?

Neuromyths…

There are a number of different systems or taxonomies of learning styles. A systematic review of learning styles (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004) names Fleming’s VARK system (which uses the modalities of Visual, Auditory, Reading (and writing), and Kinaesthetic) and Kolb’s approach (teaching people differently according to their ‘essential characteristics’) as two of the most prominent, but lists around 30 in total. The authors comment that “the sheer number… in the literature conveys something of the current conceptual confusion” concerning learning styles (Coffield et al., 2004). Similarly, a Becta guide to the research about learning styles (Becta, 2005) concludes that there is insufficient evidence for the existence of learning styles as stable cognitive or psychological traits given the dearth of longitudinal studies to support this hypothesis. Moreover, many of the instruments used to determine learning styles (such as questionnaires) rarely satisfy the most basic criteria of validity and reliability. Newton in a recent paper on errors in understanding psychology and its applications comments “the existence of ‘Learning Styles’ is a common ‘neuromyth’, and their use in all forms of education has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited in the research literature” (Newton, 2015:1). The evidence base, or rather lack of it, suggests that learning styles cannot be trusted to tell us anything useful about a person, never mind be useful in developing our curriculum to deliver more effective education.

A tsunami casting evidence aside…

However, because common-sense understandings are powerful and seductive, the concept of learning styles are accepted by many teachers as a true reflection of how people learn. This drives a need to tailor teaching to a person’s ‘learning style’ which regularly sweeps through departments like mini tsunamis casting all evidence-based research aside in the search for a magic bullet which will transform learning. The concept is also often drawn on uncritically in educational research. An example of this is a 2014 paper which promotes the  concept of learning styles as helping to “develop effective course wares and intelligent tutoring systems” (Deborah, Baskaran, & Kannan, 2014: 816) whilst citing  a major report which is critical of learning styles (Coffield et al., 2004) as a suitable place to find a list of them!

Claims for the ‘science’ behind the approach are also often made: the company Mind Tools suggests “The VAK Learning Styles Model was developed by psychologists in the 1920s to classify the most common ways that people learn” but provides no evidence beyond this about who those psychologists might be or where their research can be found.

Mulitmodal learning and teaching

Recently a change has begun. Fleming, of VARK, has acknowledged that his framework identifies modes of learning and that we live in a multimodal world. Therefore, we should teach in all modes to enrich the learning experiences. Yes, rich learning experiences use a range of styles and approaches and should maximise the opportunity to ‘construct’ an understanding of a topic. But why we need VARK to tell us anything about the learner is still a mystery; learning styles assessments, and individualised learning programmes based on them, are neither needed nor wanted in the classroom.

But there is no harm in them, surely?

If learning styles don’t exist, then how can we use the tools as a diagnostic approach to help our learners learn? Quite simply we can’t and we shouldn’t. But, more importantly we need to consider the harm we are doing when using them. If we categorise and label our learners, then we set up essential characteristics which define them and thus limit them. There is over half a century of evidence from sociology that labelling is a process of power and that the teacher is the privileged person in that power relationship – so we must be very careful with our application of seemingly innocuous labels, as they can do real harm.

Ditch those learning styles

A professionally developed curriculum should not be designed around a hunch waiting for some evidence to come along.  After a solid review of the ‘hunches’ that surround us, Newton concludes with “Learning Styles do not work, yet the current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use. This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students” (Newton, 2015:5)

References

BECTA (2005) Learning styles – an introduction to the research literature. Coventry: BECTA. Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14118/1/learning_styles.pdf

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review’. Learning and Skills Research Centre 84. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(81)90483-7

Deborah, L., Baskaran, R., & Kannan, A. (2014) ‘Learning styles assessment and theoretical origin in an E-learning scenario: a survey’. Artificial Intelligence Review 42, 801-819. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10462-012-9344-0

Newton, P. M. (2015) ‘The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education’. Frontiers in Psychology 6, article 1908 . Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908

 

 

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