Meeting Six — Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence

Harold Pash ler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork (2008) “Learn­ing Styles — Con­cepts and Evi­dence” Jour­nal of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence in the Pub­lic Inter­est Decem­ber 9(3105): 119 (.PDF)

Sum­mary: The term ‘‘learn­ing styles’’ refers to the con­cept that indi­vid­u­als dif­fer in regard to what mode of instruc­tion or study is most effec­tive for them. Pro­po­nents of learning-style assess­ment con­tend that opti­mal instruc­tion requires diag­nos­ing indi­vid­u­als’ learn­ing style and tai– lor­ing instruc­tion accord­ingly. Assess­ments of learn­ing style typ­i­cally ask peo­ple to eval­u­ate what sort of infor­ma­tion pre­sen­ta­tion they pre­fer (e.g., words ver­sus pic­tures ver­sus speech) and/or what kind of men­tal activ­ity they find most engag­ing or con­ge­nial (e.g., analy­sis ver­sus lis­ten­ing), although assess­ment instru­ments are extremely diverse. The most common—but not the only—hypothesis about the instruc­tional rel­e­vance of learn­ing styles is the mesh­ing hypoth­e­sis, accord­ing to which instruc­tion is best pro­vided in a for­mat that matches the pref­er­ences of the learner (e.g., for a ‘‘visual learner,’’ empha­siz­ing visual pre­sen­ta­tion of information).

The learning-styles view has acquired great influ­ence within the edu­ca­tion field, and is fre­quently encoun­tered at lev­els rang­ing from kinder­garten to grad­u­ate school. There is a thriv­ing indus­try devoted to pub­lish­ing learning-styles tests and guide­books for teach­ers, and many orga­ni­za­tions offer pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment work­shops for teach­ers and edu­ca­tors built around the con­cept of learn­ing styles.

The authors of the present review were charged with deter­min­ing whether these prac­tices are sup­ported by sci­en­tific evi­dence. We con­cluded that any cred­i­ble val­i­da­tion of learning-styles-based instruc­tion requires robust doc­u­men­ta­tion of a very par­tic­u­lar type of exper­i­men­tal find­ing with sev­eral nec­es­sary cri­te­ria. First, stu­dents must be divided into groups on the basis of their learn­ing styles, and then stu­dents from each group must be ran­domly assigned to receive one of mul­ti­ple instruc­tional meth­ods. Next, stu­dents must then sit for a final test that is the same for all stu­dents. Finally, in order to demon­strate that opti­mal learn­ing requires that stu­dents receive instruc­tion tai­lored to their puta­tive learn­ing style, the exper­i­ment must reveal a spe­cific type of inter­ac­tion between learn­ing style and instruc­tional method: Stu­dents with one learn­ing style achieve the best edu­ca­tional out­come when given an instruc­tional method that dif­fers from the instruc­tional method pro­duc­ing the best out­come for stu­dents with a dif­fer­ent learn­ing style. In other words, the instruc­tional method that proves most effec­tive for stu­dents with one learn­ing style is not the most effec­tive method for stu­dents with a dif­fer­ent learn­ing style.
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 apti­tudes for dif­fer­ent kinds of think­ing and for pro­cess­ing dif­fer­ent types of infor­ma­tion. How­ever, we found vir­tu­ally no evi­dence for the inter­ac­tion pat­tern men­tioned above, which was judged to be a pre­con­di­tion for val­i­dat­ing the edu­ca­tional appli­ca­tions of learn­ing styles. Although 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.

We con­clude there­fore, that at present, there is no ade­quate evi­dence base to jus­tify incor­po­rat­ing learn­ing styles assess­ments into gen­eral edu­ca­tional prac­tice. Thus, lim­ited edu­ca­tion resources would bet­ter be devoted to adopt­ing other edu­ca­tional prac­tices that have a strong evi­dence base, of which there are an increas­ing num­ber. How­ever, given the lack of method­olog­i­cally sound stud­ies of learn­ing styles, it would be an error to con­clude that all pos­si­ble ver­sions of learn­ing styles have been tested and found want­ing; many have sim­ply not been tested at all.

Dis­cus­sion Points:

  • Before read­ing this paper, did you believe in the idea of dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles? Did this affect your teach­ing approaches?
  • Did read­ing the paper change your opin­ion about “learn­ing styles”?
  • Are there other ideas about teach­ing that are wide­spread that would ben­e­fit from such analysis?
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One Response to Meeting Six — Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence

  1. mark says:

    sounds like a gooden

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