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Are "Learning Styles" Backed By Scientific Evidence?

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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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Live Smarter
Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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