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In the Search for Effective Learning: Letting Go of Learning Style Stereotypes

We've all taken those learning style quizzes at some point – are you a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner? The idea is that we each have a preference for how we best take in new information. Visual learners supposedly learn best through charts, diagrams, and other images. Auditory learners prefer listening to lectures and recordings. Kinesthetic learners need to be hands-on, touching and manipulating objects to absorb new material.


In the realm of education and training, the concept of learning styles has been widely embraced for decades. The idea that individuals have unique preferences for receiving information – be it visual, auditory, or kinesthetic – has shaped teaching methods and curriculum design. However, recent research suggests that the notion of learning styles might be more myth than reality.


That's not to say that using a mix of presentation modes is bad. We all appreciate variety, and being both shown and told how to do something can reinforce the lesson. But tailoring everything to each person's specific learning style does not seem to offer any real benefit.


This idea of learning styles is incredibly pervasive. Most of us believe we have a preference. Teachers are often encouraged to present material in multiple modes – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic – to engage all types of learners. But what if I told you that the concept of learning styles has virtually no evidence backing it up?


Unpacking the Myth of Learning Styles


The prevailing belief in learning styles asserts that tailoring instruction to an individual's preferred mode of learning enhances comprehension and retention. Many have heard about the visual learners who grasp information through images and diagrams, the auditory learners who prefer spoken explanations, and the kinesthetic learners who benefit from hands-on activities.


However, a growing body of evidence challenges the validity of this popular theory. The idea that adjusting teaching methods to suit a learner's preferred style improves learning outcomes has been debunked by several studies. One notable research review, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support the notion that teaching according to learning styles enhances educational effectiveness.


The Flawed Foundation


The concept of learning styles originated from the field of psychology and gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s. The theory was rooted in the idea that people have innate and unchangeable preferences for how they learn best. However, as our understanding of cognitive science has advanced, it has become clear that the brain's ability to adapt and learn is not limited by a fixed set of preferences.


Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, in his book "Why Don't Students Like School?", argues that while people may express a preference for a particular learning style, there is little evidence that catering to these preferences leads to better learning outcomes. In fact, the research suggests that learners benefit most from an approach that encourages critical thinking, engagement, and reflection.


Learning through Reflection and Sources


So, if learning styles aren't the key to effective learning, what is? Recent studies emphasize the importance of metacognition, or thinking about one's thinking. Reflection plays a crucial role in the learning process. When individuals take the time to ponder and evaluate what they've learned, they deepen their understanding and create lasting memories.


Moreover, learning is greatly enhanced when it is anchored in meaningful contexts and connected to reliable sources. Instead of focusing on how information is presented, educators should emphasize the importance of critical analysis, evaluation of sources, and the synthesis of information. These skills are not only essential for academic success but also for navigating the complex information landscape of the real world.


The Road Ahead


As we move forward in the field of education, it is crucial to reevaluate and update our pedagogical approaches based on the latest scientific evidence. While the allure of learning styles might persist, educators and learners alike should shift their focus to evidence-based practices that promote critical thinking, reflection, and the integration of diverse sources.


More important than learning styles is the opportunity for learners to actively engage with material. Things like discussing concepts, explaining them to others, applying the skills, getting feedback, and reflecting on how to improve. These evidence-based techniques boost understanding across all learning styles and modalities.


The idea that individuals have fixed learning styles is a compelling but ultimately flawed concept. Learning is a complex process that is not confined to specific preferences for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic information. Instead, the emphasis should be on fostering a learning environment that encourages reflection and engagement with diverse sources, allowing individuals to develop the skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing world.


So next time you take one of those learning style surveys, take the results with a grain of salt. Feel free to use visual aids, recordings, or hands-on activities as helpful supplements. But don't put all your effort into catering teaching to purported visual, auditory or kinesthetic preferences. The most effective learning happens through active engagement – no matter your supposed style.





Sources:


Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.


Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of educational psychology, 107(1), 64.


Kratzig, G. P., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of educational psychology, 98(1), 238.


Riener, C. & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 42(5), 32-35.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.


Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. and Mayer, R.E., 2010. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.


Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119.


Willingham, D. T. (2005). Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction? American Educator, 29(2), 31–35.

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