Are "Learning Styles" Backed By Scientific Evidence?

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When I was in sixth grade, a psychologist came into my English class and gave us a "learning styles" test. I was going to a magnet school at the time, a school that might today be lumped in the TAG category. I don't remember the specifics of the test, but I distinctly remember the outcome. As the psychologist stood in front of our class before the test, she said, roughly: "Most of you will be visual learners; the rest will be auditory. [Explanation of those learning styles, and how smart people can use them while studying and such.] Oh, and kinesthetic learners are good with their hands, so they're usually mechanics. None of you will fall into that category." Guess who the only kinesthetic learner in the class was? Yup, me! I was a very quiet, non-kinesthetic kid, so I was baffled (though I was a fairly good pianist). When I asked what I could do with this new learning style information, the psychologist shrugged and said, "Learn to type?" So I did.

In the years since, I often wondered about learning styles and whether I was an odd duck, being a kinesthetic learner who was also a writer and an extremely verbal person. For example, I would write (or later type) notes in class, but I never, ever went back to read them. There was a time in high school when I would "type" my notes on a nonexistent keyboard on my desk, since there was no way I could afford a laptop, and I wouldn't read the notes later anyway. It looked weird, but it worked. In college, when I finally had a laptop, I took notes using my blindingly fast typing ability (and was paid for this -- the university gave me a stipend for taking notes to be given to other students who could not take their own), but I never reviewed my own notes, since it didn't seem to matter; I either knew the material or I didn't. And typically, sitting through a class, I knew it. So perhaps there was something to the notion that the "kinesthetic" activity of typing the notes was what made me learn them. Or was it simply that I had convinced myself that this was the case, because at a formative moment, someone told me how my mind worked?

NPR has a good article (and audio piece) on the topic. It seems that some recent studies and surveys of existing studies apparently disprove the notion that learning styles are actually significant in terms of classroom teaching -- this doesn't mean that the learning styles don't exist (though there is apparently a lack of super-solid science on that too), but it may mean that tailoring lessons to a particular, single style may be a mistake. Here's a snippet:

We've all heard the theory that some students are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. And still other kids learn best when lessons involve movement.

But should teachers target instruction based on perceptions of students' strengths? Several psychologists say education could use some "evidence-based" teaching techniques, not unlike the way doctors try to use "evidence-based medicine."

Psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, who studies how our brains learn, says teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we're on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it's a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it's presented.

Read the rest and be sure to listen to the audio piece -- it's fascinating stuff, and sure to rile the many people who have based careers on learning style theories.

What Do You Think?

Are you a teacher, learner, or other person with an interest in learning styles? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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September 16, 2011 - 6:24am
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