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Are learning styles going out of style?

The phrase “learning styles” broke out of educators’ circles and entered daily American language years ago. School children and adults in business settings have been asked to reflect on their learning styles or encouraged to take assessments to help reveal their leaning styles. In fact, just this week the Washington Post reported that the president characterizes himself as a visual and auditory learner.

Thanks to the work of learning theorist Neil Fleming, we have a common understanding of the learning style types as visual, auditory, read and write, and kinesthetic. Learning style theory proposes that not only does each person have these categorizable preferences, but learning in our preferred modality leads to better comprehension and increased motivation.

Learning styles theory has motivated change at some schools. Out of concern that kinesthetic learners' needs are not always looked after, more hands-on activities have been added. Some teachers are trying to rotate the types of modalities in their lessons so as to better accommodate learners. Teachers are also sharing information about learning styles with their students so that students can use studying methods that better suit their preferred way of taking in information.

To the extent that these changes make teaching more effective or engaging, they're great. In fact, teaching that takes learning styles theory into account is likely to incorporate other good practices. For example, presenting new information in several ways may support memory through repetition. Incorporating hands-on activities into classes helps to make abstract concepts more concrete. Varying lesson styles may help children who have trouble paying attention to focus more.

The tricky thing about learning styles theory is that scientific evidence to support it is lacking. (For those interested, here is a good article summarizing the state of the science around learning styles.) To be clear, we do not have convincing evidence that the theory is bogus either. Isolating variables in real-world learning settings is just tough to do well.

Another difficult thing about learning style theory is that, even if it does have implications for learning, we do not know if catering to learning styles helps long-term memory. Every teacher has stories of lessons that seemed to go well followed by poor quiz or test scores later. Indeed, part of the reason why area schools are starting to review for spring standardized testing now is because many students have not retained important information from earlier in the school year.

My personal struggle with learning style theory is that some people view their learning style as a prescription. I believe that we are all capable of learning through different modalities and even capable of learning well through a modality we do not prefer. The stand-out educational experiences in my life have spanned all of the different learning modalities. I worry, then, when I hear statements like "I am a ____ learner, so I don't think that elective class will be good for me." As with all things in life, keeping an open mind around educational experiences increases the likelihood that they will be positive.

At the end of the day, good lessons are engaging lessons, and so many different things can make a lesson engaging – changes to the routine, use of humor, the opportunity to work in groups with peers. If learning styles theory inspires the creation of more engaging lessons, then it has made a positive contribution to education. I doubt, though, that we will ever see learning environments that are customized to students' learning styles. Nor do I think that such customization would make teaching more effective.


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