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Learning Styles: New Review of the Research

By Erika Engstrom, RMIG Teaching Chair

University of Nevada-Las Vegas

If you’ve taken any teaching development courses through your institution’s teaching and learning center, perhaps you have had some training in the educational concept of learning styles. A new study in the December 2009 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest reviews the literature on learning styles and applies a set of criteria to such studies that assesses the educational benefits of this approach to instruction.

In “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” Pashler et al. take to task the learning-style industry, wherein the publishing and selling of measurement devices to help students and instructors has flourished. These assessment “products” essentially serve as evaluations to see if a student has a certain learning style, such as visual, verbal, auditory, or assimilative. The idea here is to match a student’s learning style with the way an instructor delivers class material. Visual learners would learn more if more visuals were presented during a lecture, for example. These assessments include the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Styles Model and Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory.

The authors posit that the learning-styles approach to teaching is appealing, but lacks empirical evidence that shows that a given student’s learning style is enhanced somehow by instruction that is tailored to that particular learning style. The authors then distinguish learning style preferences from the learning-styles hypothesis. Learning style preferences simply reflect a person’s self-reported preference of a mode for learning new information. The learning-style hypothesis, however, posits that learning will be ineffective, or at least less efficient, if learners receive instruction that does not fit their learning style (or the converse, that learning will be enhanced by congruent teaching style).

After reviewing the methods and outcomes of learning-styles studies, the authors conclude that the literature “has revealed only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence” that meet their evidential criteria for supporting the learning-styles hypothesis (p. 116). These include using an experimental method to compare two or more groups each assessed as having a certain learning style. Each group then would be randomly assigned to a learning style method, and then given the same achievement test. Support for the learning styles hypothesis, say the authors, “receives support if and only if an experiment reveals a crossover interaction between learning style and method…” (p. 109).

In their conclusion, the authors say that given lack of support for the effectiveness of matching learning styles with instructional style, “it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open for our students, our children, and ourselves. Toward that end, we think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning” (p. 117).  Finally, they write, “If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated,” (p. 117). In short, it seems, good teaching is good teaching, no matter the learning style preference of the student.

Source: Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork., R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

(Also see “Learning with Style,” an item summarizing this article in the Jan. 8, 2010 issue of Science, p. 129).

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