Thinking about learning styles

December 6, 2010, 9:29 pm

Rendering of human brain.

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Excellent post today from Derek Bruff, reporting on a talk by Linda Nilson titled “The Truth About Learning Styles”. Linda’s slides are here (PDF), and here’s Derek’s short take (all emphases are Derek’s):

Are there learning styles?  That’s the question that Linda Nilson answered in her keynote. [...] [T]he short version is that several popular learning styles models, including Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, theVARK model (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic), the Kolb learning style model, and the Myers-Briggs personality modelhave very little predictive validity. That is, a student’s “style” as determined by one of these tests doesn’t have an effect on how well they learn through various activities.

[...] Is there a learning style model with reasonable predictive validity? Yes, according to Linda. The Felder-Silverman model has “good construct and predictive validity”within the context of teaching engineering students. The Felder-Silverman model isn’t as well known as the other models listed here, but given its greater validity, it’s worth being familiar with.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a free, 44-question self-scoring questionnaire online that measures students’ positions within the Felder-Silverman model. I like to give this questionnaire to students as a homework assignment between the first and second day of class along with a reflection essay asking them to respond to their questionnaire results. Students are sometimes surprised with what the questionnaire says about them. It’s frequently the case among first-year students that they’ve never really considered that people learn in different ways or that working with a person who learns differently than they do sets up a potential conflict. Upon entering college — where students have much more responsibility for their own learning, and there is much more collaborative work happening than is often the case in high school — just getting students to keep the notion that people learn in different ways clear in their minds is a pretty big step. The questionnaire is free and takes about 10 minutes, so there’s really no good reason not to administer it, just to have the data on hand if nothing else.

Faculty, on the other hand, often make too much of learning styles. That each student learns in a different way is beyond question; but I think we can oversell the notion of learning styles quite easily and end up labeling students rather than helping them learn. And it’s crucial to understand the limitations and scientific validity of educational concepts like learning styles — or in this case to understand that this validity is fairly limited, and we should handle the notion of learning styles with care and perhaps with a grain of salt.

Derek’s post goes on to note the importance of moving away from “learning styles” and toward teaching modalities, focusing especially on those modalities that help the greatest number of learners regardless of “learning style”. This is an important difference, and there are things that we definitely know from cognitive science that speak to teaching modalities that make a difference with a large audience without regard to learning styles. Derek’s post/Linda’s talk goes into that in some detail; read the whole thing.

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