An early issue of the Cengage Learning eNewsletter was devoted to the topic of “Addressing Different Learning Styles.” This issue prompted some feedback from instructors with opposing viewpoints on the matter of basing one’s teaching style on this idea. Below, Dr. Melanie Cooper, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Education at Clemson University, provides her response.
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Guest Contributor: Melanie M Cooper, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Clemson University (Clemson, SC)
The Cengage Learning eNewsletter (September 2012) on “Learning Styles” prompted me to write this short response. Over the past twenty years or so the concept of learning styles, and the idea that instructors should target their instruction to students’ preferred styles has become quite prevalent, probably because, if learning styles exist, it would appear to the obvious thing to do. But as with many areas of education what passes for accepted fact is often not; for example, lecturing is a time-honored method of teaching, but there is a great deal of evidence that it is not a particularly effective strategy for promoting learning.
There are numerous learning styles inventories available and many students are aware (or better put, have been told) of their “learning style” when they arrive at college. They may be labeled as “visual” or “auditory” learners, and instructors are exhorted to address students’ learning styles for optimum benefit. The experience of having a student state that they are a visual learner and therefore cannot do a given task is becoming increasingly common. Unfortunately, while there is plenty of evidence that students have different aptitudes (abilities) for example, spatial visualization, word fluency or number fluency, and almost certainly have different preferences for how they learn and what materials they prefer, there is little credible evidence that specifically addressing a student’s preferred style produces improved learning gains. Moreover, it is unclear whether providing a student with a label facilitates or constrains their ability to learn.
Perhaps the most compelling and dispassionate perspective is that provided by Pashler et al (Pashler, 2008) in their review of the research literature on learning styles. They conclude that while there is extensive literature on learning styles, there are no well designed studies that support the hypothesis that teaching to a particular learning style improves learning for students with that style and a number of credible studies that show no effect when instruction is targeted at a student’s preferred style. So rather than exhorting faculty to reach all students by using a variety of approaches for each topic, so that the visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners may learn appropriately (given that there is no evidence that this approach works), we might seek out the research findings on particular teaching and learning methods that have been shown to be effective for all students, or that are effective for particular topics. For example, it has been shown that frequent testing improves recall and learning for all students (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008), and that the design of interactive materials is important – not just for the visual or kinesthetic – but for all learners (Mayer, 2009). The recent NRC report on Discipline Based Education Research (DBER) (NRC, 2012) discusses some of this evidence. If we are to provide a strong foundation for all students in our classes it is important to rely on evidence-based approaches, rather than what we believe to be true, or own preferences.
Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based,Education Research, Board on, S. E., Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences,and Education, & National, R. C. (2012). Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering The National Academies Press. Retrieved from //www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13362
Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Science, 319, 966-968.
Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multi-media learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & and Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Post Author: Tami Strang. Tami Strang is a Managing Editor of the Cengage Learning blog. She has extensive experience in higher education publishing, and recently obtained her Masters degree through the San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science.