Are learning styles dead? Should we be concerned with recent articles saying that there is no evidence of learning gains by teaching only to that student’s primary learning style?
Being open to new research is part of how we remain cutting-edge in our field. However, we need to be careful in how we analyze and make use of that research.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If a researcher does not find evidence of something existing, it typically means one of two things: 1) that thing doesn’t exist, or 2) the thing does exist, but the researcher did not conduct a study in a way to find evidence for it.
Taking one aspect of one category of learning styles, and trying to teach a student through only that one aspect, is not likely to result in optimal learning for that student. That’s like throwing flour in a bowl and complaining that it’s not a cake.
For example, one category of learning styles is perceptual modalities. Of the six or more modalities, one is auditory-listening. Having a student only learn through listening, and no other means, will not likely yield the best results. Usually students need to learn through multiple means. There have been studies that showed evidence that students initially learning through primary learning styles, and then following up with secondary and tertiary learning styles, did have stronger learning gains.
However, learning styles include more than perceptual modalities. Other categories include environmental, social, psychological, neurotype considerations, conditional-situational, and more. Learning styles inventories – or typologies – vary in how many categories they include.
Every typology is limited to what that typology measures or inventories. For example, a super simple modality inventory might only have three options: visual, auditory, and hands-on. A slightly more complex modality inventory will recognize the difference between visual-text and visual-picture, or between auditory-listening and auditory-verbal, and so on. An even more sophisticated inventory will begin to account for the possibility of synesthesia and other perceptual input considerations. And that’s just modalities.
Some typologies include modalities plus several other categories. For every single category, the typology is only measuring for the possibilities that it predicts to exist. Each person is more complex than what even the most complete typology can show.
However, it’s a start. It’s a conversation-starter. A learning styles or similar assessment can facilitate the beginning of self-awareness, hopefully provide some affirmation, and serve as a catalyst to communicate needs and preferences.
Communication is important for learning, and word choice is important for communication. The phrase “learning styles” has been defined and applied in a variety of ways, making communication and research about learning styles problematic at best.
Learning needs and preferences is better terminology than learning styles. Most can agree that a student who is blind is not likely to learn from visual means, and that a person who is Deaf will not likely learn through auditory means. They have learning needs that seem obvious, wouldn’t you agree? Where do we draw the line though? How about a student with a processing disorder confirmed with fMRI scans; would this be accepted evidence of a learning need? At what point do we draw the line between a need and what we would instead define as a preference? And should we?
There’s value having students experience learning in a variety of ways, and even growing skills and strategies for different approaches and scenarios. Active reading strategies help with processing text. Note-taking practice can help process auditory information, and using technology such as recording and speech to text can also be a great tool to discover. Learning how to work independently is important. Learning how to work with others, or even to oversee a group in a project management capacity, can develop valuable skills. Some students will be more capable of using certain learning approaches than others, both due to learning needs and preferences.
Why would preferences matter?
What it comes down to is this: emotions matter. If you get a student who needs to be detoxed from previous experiences, or who is coming to you from trauma, or who simply has a poor self-image as a learner, having that student begin the learning process in ways most comfortable and manageable could be vital for that student to move toward a growth mindset. Some students don’t have bootstraps; and if they did, what happens when you try to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps? You fall. That’s the original meaning of this phrase.
Emotions impact motivation, as well as the ability to learn in the moment no matter how motivated. Affirmation, being seen or validated, and gaining a sense of self-awareness can lead to an empowered learner. A sense that success is possible – an increasing internal locus of control – and that one’s own unique strengths and traits are valuable, makes it easier to try. Starting with preferred ways of learning, experiencing success and building upon that foundation, can put the student in the position to stretch and try new things later. It’s part of a complete recipe for success.