Learning Styles and Education Myths – an academic journey

This past year I had a great opportunity to work in our Learning and Teaching Innovation Centre and part of my role was teaching on the PGCert in HE more commonly known in my institution as CPAD (Continued Professional Academic Development).

I was module lead for Linking Pedagogic Theory to Practice, with a focus on learning through critical reflection. Those details are purely for context and will lead into what this blog post is really all about…..Learning styles and urban myths in education.

When I started my academic career, over 10 years ago, I was introduced to learning styles during my own CPAD journey. We spent time completing a purchased questionnaire and associated booklet within our multidisciplinary groups, followed by a buzz around the table “Oh I’m a reflector”, “I’m a pragmatist”, “I’m an activist”. Now, I was a complete novice to learning theory but eager to understand anything that might help my teaching and learning styles sounded like something tangible to use and apply. The key message from that session – students are not the same and learn differently. However, there was no what next, no critical discussion or evaluations from practice. I could hardly hand out a questionnaire to all my students and even if I did, what do I change in my teaching? I was somewhat confused…

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I needed clarity and thankfully more recent publications help to critically review learning styles. So fast forward to the present CPAD where I have the opportunity to facilitate on learning styles and we get to grips with the concept and more importantly the lack of evidence to support them.

Learning styles refers to the belief that different people learn information in different ways.

There are at least 71 different learning styles described by Coffield et al. (2004) so this has been a vast area of interest among professional educators over the years not to mention the commercial activities associated with the instrument tools and resources.

The premise behind learning styles is that if the teaching approach matches the preferred mode of learning style this will lead to improved performance.  So for a “visual learner”, information should be presented visually to match or mesh with the learning style.

Pashler et al. (2009) provide an excellent critical review including their methodology to test the learning style hypothesis.

Any research study must:

1. Divide learners into two or more groups (e.g. visual and auditory)

2. Within each learning-style group, learners must be randomly assigned to one of at least two different instructional methods

3. The same test must be used with all learners

4. The results must demonstrate that the learning method providing optimal test performance of one learning-style group is different to the learning method that optimizes the performance of a second learning-style group.

Pashler et al. illustrate this with crossover interactions of acceptable evidence where the learning method with the highest mean test score for one category of learners is different from the learning method producing the highest mean test score for the other category of learners. In other words, if the same learning method optimizes the mean test score of both groups, the result does not provide evidence to support the learning style hypothesis.

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They found only one study potentially meeting the criteria but with questionable evidence and methodological issues including removal of outliers and no reporting of mean scores for each final assessment.

Learning styles, now I only ever hear them mentioned with disapproval. There is however another urban myth “the learning pyramid” that I have seen at recent conferences used as a supporting model to demonstrate the effectiveness of learning using a particular mode of instruction. So we discussed, (well tore it apart!) this too in the CPAD module.

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This intuitive model is attributed to the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in Bethel, Maine, USA. The laboratory respond to any requests for further information on the research with a standard email:

[The research was carried out] at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties, when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate but no, we no longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers. We get many enquiries about this every month – and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryd. 

So the origins, well the above speaks for itself. The percentages are too nicely rounded off, almost impossible in scientific research and without specifying the method of measurement, the learners, the learning task casts further doubt. The pyramid is at odds and contradicts learning styles, a visual learner has a lower retention rate despite matching their preferred learning mode!

Is it a surprise then, that when I expressed an interest in chemistry education research early in my academic career that the response I got “but what about your real research?”

This was said with a positive intention I might add from a supportive Prof who was a critical friend later on when I wrote up a context-based case study.  He simply was concerned that I would lose my academic currency.  The education urban myths certainly haven’t helped our cause, fluffy non-rigorous research, that’s how many of my colleagues feel about education focused research.

 

 

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