Are ‘Learning Styles’ Really That Effective?
Learning styles recently came up on the MrReid.org site, where the site’s proprietor, a physicist and teacher, states that he was trained to believe students fall into three separate categories.
“Visual learners learn best by reading and writing notes and watching demonstrations and videos,” he writes. “Auditory learners learn best by listening to their teacher and by talking about and discussing the material being studied. Kinaesthetic (or “active”) learners learn best by doing; by carrying out experiments and directly experiencing the material in a hands-on way.”
Learning styles are often spoke of with reverence in the world of education. Teachers are advised to adjust their teaching to meet a student’s “needs,” yet few ever pause to consider the risks of doing so. In fact, you may have just read that sentence and thought, “How could it possibly be risky to teach a student according to his or her learning style — isn’t that a teacher’s job?” In a word, no.
Quoting a paper by Krätzig and Arbuthnott (2006), Reid shares this:
“[T]here were no significant correlations between learning style and objective memory performance … [our] results cast doubt on the central assumptions of the learning style model as it is used in education.
“An assessment of learning style does not provide information about an individual’s best learning environment. … [F]ocusing on learning styles as defined by sensory modalities [learning styles] may be a wasted effort … [M]ost people are likely multimodal and multisituational learners, changing learning strategies depending on the context of the to-be-learned material. … [P]resenting material to students in multiple sensory modalities is undoubtedly beneficial to learning and interest.”
In fact, when teachers start bowing to the pressures of “learning styles,” they could actually be doing a student more harm than good for a variety of reasons. Let’s look at a few.
1. The workforce doesn’t much care what your learning style is.
When it comes to learning styles on-the-job, a company will seldom alter everything it’s doing just so you can better understand the requirements of your position. You can either learn the training and avoid/fix mistakes, or you can look for another job. Businesses may try to accommodate you if practical, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to do the job or you’re not going to be around very long.
2. ‘Learning styles’ talk gives one an excuse for poor performance.
Have you ever had a classmate who wasn’t very good, but instead of taking the blame on himself, he declared that he was failing because the teacher “had us read too much” or expected the student to take more personal responsibility when it came to project assignments/homework? If so, you may have even heard this fellow classmate say something about how they just can’t connect their learning style to the teacher’s techniques. What they are essentially doing in these scenarios is manufacturing an excuse for their poor performance instead of putting in the extra work that it would take to achieve. By condoning this, an educational system sets the student up for failure.
3. The ‘learning styles’ excuse makes a weak student weaker.
No matter what education does to adapt to a student’s learning style, it will never remove the need to learn in different ways that every person will eventually face within their adult lives. Essentially, when teachers have to adapt to a student rather than forcing the student out of their comfort zone, they are dulling important learning styles that the student will need later in life. That means if you’re more of a “visual learner” instead of a reader, you’re going to become an even worse reader than you would have been otherwise as a result.
As one commenter on the MrReid.org website noted, “The idea that someone has a learning style that must be taught to is absurd. Intuitively so. Obviously this can only be detrimental to development as its natural conclusion is to lead to atrophy of those modalities NOT chosen. … [F]ar from making it easier for teachers, negating learning styles makes it IMPOSSIBLE for teachers … Good teaching is teaching which is alive, vibrant, interested, dynamic and covers ALL the modalities. All this nonsense about learning styles is a lazy way for schools to tick a box. I’m staggered that people, working in the industry, are still talking about learning styles as though they exist. How did this ever take a hold?”
So how does one expand their learning styles to include different modalities?
Don’t misconstrue what we’re saying here. It is entirely possible that you are a better visual learner than auditory; but no matter how good of a visual learner you are, you will definitely need the other as you go through life. The best way to “get it” is to spend some time forcing yourself outside your comfort zone. That means not taking the easy way out even if it’s available to you.
By planning your studies ahead and you can find more time to experiment with different learning styles. That means not waiting until the last minute — killing your inner procrastinator, you might say — and seeking help however you can.
Reach out to fellow students in your class whom you know to be better at a different learning style. Have them teach you something in the way that makes sense to them. Reach out to your teachers both during and outside of class time and explain the situation. They can help you find tips to push past whatever weaknesses that you may have.
Don’t just do things “the easy way” because sometimes the easy way may not be an option readily available.