When I started my academic career, over 16 years ago, I was introduced to learning styles. As a group of new lecturers, we completing a purchased questionnaire within our multidisciplinary teams.
“I’m a reflector”, “I’m a pragmatist”, “I’m an activist”.
I was a novice to learning theory but eager to understand anything that might help my teaching. 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. Distributing a questionnaire to all my students was not practical and even if I did, what do I change in my teaching? I was somewhat confused…
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)
The premise behind learning styles is that if the teaching approach matches the preferred mode of learning style then 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:
- Divide learners into two or more groups (e.g. visual and auditory)
- Within each learning-style group, learners must be randomly assigned to one of at least two different instructional methods.
- The same test must be used with all learners.
- 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.
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.
So “what’s your learning style” has no supporting evidence. There are however evidence-based strategies that support learning. I use these and if you are interesting in understanding how to study smarter then my book Study Smarter: a lecturer’s inside guide to boost your grades will be a useful resource. It’s easy to read and aimed at learners.