Monday, November 9, 2015

Are Learning Styles Real?

Years ago, I posted an article here entitled Learning Styles that pointed to and summarized advice to A&P students that I gave at my blog The A&P Student. A recent article in a science magazine purporting to debunk the notion of learning styles prompts me to revisit this concept. There have been many, many articles claiming to debunk the concept of learning styles, but this most recent one concisely states the concern.

The myth-busting article claims that teaching strategies tailored to student learning styles do not improve learning, and implies that learning styles are thus useless. Perhaps I'm overstating that implication, but considering that readers are enticed with this headline 10 Lies About the Brain, on the magazine cover, I don't think so.

Many A&P study activities are
fun for visual and kinesthetic learners.
I think the article correctly interprets what we know from experimentation when it concludes that students, as a group, can learn just as well with strategies that do not match their learning styles. Perhaps we have a lot more experimentation to do before we get too comfortable with that idea, though. One issue is the variety of descriptions of what a "learning style" even is. Are we talking left-brain/right-brain? Or the VARK styles based on sensory preferences? Or perhaps big-picture/little-pieces learning preferences? Or is it active-passive, or maybe quiet-loud? Really, there are all kinds of learning style preferences that could be examined.

Another issue to consider is how experimental results apply to individuals—rather than giving us a group's average measure of performance impacts of teaching to specific learning styles. Have we sufficiently eliminated the possibility that some students are more style-dependent than others?

Questions that occur to me include how and when "learning" is measured for such experiments. Could learning be quicker when targeting teaching to learning styles? Could some kinds of learning benefit from a learning-style approach to teaching, but not other kinds of learning?

Regardless of the potential pitfalls of research that has failed to prove that teaching strategies keyed to specific learning strategies improves learning, there are some additional aspects to consider. One is that learning-style targeted teaching has not proven to do any harm. Perhaps there are other benefits to providing multiple types of learning experiences to our students besides the "ability to learn" the concepts. Do students enjoy learning more when it better fits their personal style?

Another issue not addressed by the recent article, nor any of the similar articles that I've seen, is that it doesn't seem to consider that most of us teachers don't much rely on style-specific teaching strategies, anyway.

What we most often do is suggest that students make their own choices about study strategies based on their learning style preferences. We do that because we know that each student has their own way of thinking and learning. Why not help them do a bit of metacognition and analyze which study strategies work best for them? Or at least help them figure out which strategies are more comfortable—or less painful?

A&P students can tailor
personal study to their learning styles
To use an analogy, let's compare learning styles to clothing styles. Students in my face-to-face classes can tell you my clothing "uniform" worn every day for teaching: sneakers, jeans or khakis, pocket-T shirt or mock turtleneck, and sport coat. Each of these items is worn mainly for comfort. It seems easier and more enjoyable for me to teach in this kind of outfit. But I've also presented information in suit-and-tie and even in academic regalia (believe it or not). And I think I've been no less effective as a teacher—even if I'm not at all comfortable in formal outfits. My point is that for me, clothing style does not affect my ability to teach—but it does affect my comfort and joy of teaching. And I think perhaps that can potentially affect the comfort and joy of learning among my students.

Likewise, I could learn all the features of the human skull by reading a narrative description—but it's a heck of a lot more fun to instead learn them by exploring an actual human skull held in my hands. Perhaps that's because I'm a kinesthetic learner and my comfort and joy of learning blossoms when I can play with specimens.

Doesn't comfort and joy of learning—perhaps enhanced by making personalized choices in study strategies—have some value alongside the value of learning outcomes measured on an exam?

Perhaps it's not very useful to have a black-and-white approach to learning research that implies that because we have not proven a link between learning-style teaching strategies and learning outcomes, such strategies are therefore useless. Let's consider a more shades-of-gray approach that allows the possibility that suggesting learning-style-specific study strategies to our students may make learning more enjoyable for them—and possibly more efficient.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • Learning research has not confirmed a significant impact on learning when we provide learning activities matched to the learning styles of our students, so perhaps we should avoid focusing too much on trying to do that.

  • Consider the value of metacognition—thinking about how we think and learn—for our students when they are planning their own study strategies. Perhaps suggesting to them a personalized approach based on individual learning styles can be helpful.

  • Learning styles should not be seen as hard barriers to learning, but instead seen as areas where the process of learning can be adjusted for ease and comfort of learning.

  • When students insist that you must deliver content to match their learning styles, or "I can't learn," suggest to them the more reasonable assertion that they can still learn effectively no matter the style of presentation. Then consider helping them tailor their own study strategies to their preferred learning style.

  • Although a learning-style approach should never limit the strategies we can use in learning, adapting personal study strategies to learning-style preferences may enhance the experience of learning.

Want to know more?

Brain Myths Busted (10 Lies About the Brain)

  • M. Scudellari. Popular Science. November 2015. p.49-53.
  • One of many articles that in recent years claiming to debunk the entire concept of learning styles by refuting their value in designing lesson plans.

VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles

  • Accessed 8 November 2015.
  • Website explaining the VARK system of learning styles, including its origin and research related to VARK.

The VARK Questionnaire

  • VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles. Accessed 8 November 2015.
  • A self-quiz that helps any student determine their own learning style in the VARK system (see above).

Learning Styles Online

  • A website that outlines yet another system of learning styles.

Learning Styles

  • Kevin Patton. Lion Den. Last updated January 2015.
  • One of my A&P Study Tips & Tools pages from the Lion Den website. Your students can link to this page, get a brief intro to learning styles, then link to various tools to help them use them.

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology

  • Kevin Patton. Elsevier Publishing. 2nd edition, 2014.
  • My compact study tool for all A&P students, includes information for students on using learning styles to improve their success in the A&P course.

The A&P Student

Top photo: melodi2
Bottom photo: picaland