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Russell Poldrack

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Are "Learning Styles" Important In Teaching Methods?

Posted: 12/22/09 05:51 PM ET

We've all heard it before: "I am a visual learner," "My child is a verbal learner," and so on. The idea that there are different learning styles, and that education works best when it meshes with an individual's learning style, are deeply embedded in our culture. It's also big business, with several companies selling tests for different learning styles and training for teachers to use them.

However, a recently published report suggests that the idea of "learning styles" may just be another example of our inability to accurately observe how our own minds work.

The authors of this report, all of whom are influential cognitive psychologists but none of whom have done research on learning styles before, examined the published research literature for studies that showed that learning was better when material was learned in a way that meshed with the learner's strategy. For example, "verbal learners" should perform better learning from printed text compared to diagrams, whereas "visual learners" should learn better using diagrams compared to text.

The authors were able to find no solid research findings that supported the learning styles idea, and several that directly contradicted it. This report is not the first to examine the question, but it is consistent with the previous reports that questioned the evidence for learning styles, such as one written in 2005 by Dan Willingham.

Now, it's always important to remember that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; it could be that a study is just around the corner showing big positive effects of meshing education with learning styles. However, the fact that the current research shows no such effects raises legitimate questions about whether our educational systems should be spending money on assessments or teaching techniques based on this idea.

It's also important to point out that the authors of this report are not saying that learning styles are not real. Many people truly do prefer to learn in different ways. But the fact that I prefer to learn visually or verbally is completely different from whether I actually learn better when taught visually or verbally.

Why, then, is the idea of learning styles so powerful for learners, parents, and teachers? There are many possible reasons, but in part it seems to reflect the fact that people are generally quite bad at predicting their own learning. One nice example of this comes from a study published in 2006 by Roddy Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke from Washington University in St. Louis. These researchers taught students some scientific material (one paragraph about the sun and one about sea otters) in two different ways.

One group was presented with a paragraph about the topic and allowed to read it four times. Another group was presented with the paragraph once, and then tested three times on their memory for the material. Both groups then received a questionnaire that asked them how well they thought they had learned the material. They also received memory tests within a few minutes after studying, as well as one week later.

When questioned about how well they had learned the material, the people who had read the paragraph four times felt much better about their learning of the material. In addition, they performed better on the memory test right after studying. However, things were very different a week later. At that point, the people who had studied the paragraph once and then been tested three times handily outperformed the overconfident paragraph-readers on the memory test for the material.

The moral of this story is that people are, in general, fairly bad at making judgments about their own learning. We can often be overconfident about memories that are completely false, and yet be underconfident about our ability to remember other things that are actually well learned. In particular, we often confuse fluency (or ease) for ability. The group that got to read the paragraph four times found it very easy by the fourth time, and this led them to think that it would be a snap to remember the material later.

There is a growing body of research that shows that the things that are hardest are the things that make us learn best; this concept has come to be known by the name of "desirable difficulties," with the idea being that if something is too easy then we probably aren't learning very much. The research is still ongoing to determine just how widely this idea applies, but there's enough evidence there already to suggest that we rethink how we go about teaching and learning, both in the classroom and in our daily lives.