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The Learning Styles Debate

How do you learn? Learning styles are a popular way to describe how you learn – three of the most common are: 

  • visual (learning by seeing and looking),
  • auditory (learning by hearing or listening), and
  • kinesthetic (learning by touching and doing). 

Learning styles have been defined as "the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them." Similar terms used to describe learning techniques include: learning preference, learning strategy, cognitive strategy, and cognitive style. McLaughlin provides this list and more in-depth explanations as they apply to the design of learning materials in her article about learning styles research.

Learning styles assessments are used to find out more about how individual students learn and are prevalent in higher education. Some learning style assessments are part of fee-based services offered by vendors, while others are developed by educators and psychologists for use at universities. Many are also free and web-based. You may already be familiar with some of them including the ones listed below:

Helpful or Hype?

Learning styles questionnaires are sometimes used by instructors to poll student learning preferences in their courses. They are also often included as assignments in academic strategy courses and new student orientations to help students become more aware of the ways in which they learn and identify study strategies. These inventories provide a quick way to describe learning, but are they helpful?

A study conducted in 2004 (also know as the Coffield Report [PDF]) by the Learning and Skills Research Centre  in the UK is still getting attention for its assessment of learning styles. These researchers found 71 different ways in which learning styles are described and measured. The results of their investigation found that none of the 13 major models they explored met minimal levels of reliability and validity.

You'll find that educators at all levels, grade school through college, are involved in assessing learner characteristics and individual learning styles. Online educators are also using learning styles to describe students. How might learning styles impact the learning experience online? One study of online graduate students, conducted by professors at the University of Wisconsin and University of Missouri, found that "learning styles did not seem to have any significant impact on the level of satisfaction." 

Another study, conducted by psychologists at the University of California-San Diego in 2008 found "no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general education practice". Part of the explanation was related to the fact that while a lot has been written about learning style theories, very few experiments have been conducted to adequately evaluate their effectiveness.

There are calls for more information, and a fresh perspective on learning how we learn. Stephen Downes, Senior Researcher for the National Research Council of Canada, points out that there is still a lot we don't know about how we learn and other factors that we need to consider including what we learn. On his website he Downes states that "…there's something about the learner's knowledge, capacities, and inclinations that must inform how we teach…." 

Sorting it all out…

Educational and psychological researchers continue to explore theories related to how we learn. These studies will add to the work that has already been done and to the efforts of educators at all levels. In the meantime, are there any benefits to assessing our learning styles?

From an instructor or course designer's point of view, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate all of the learning style possibilities within a course. From a student's perspective, identifying with a specific learning style can be limiting, too exclusive. The results of the assessments, when seen as a diagnosis of sorts, can discourage the consideration and exploration of additional learning strategies.

When approached as a way to generate options, instead of limit them, I think that assessing learning preferences may be helpful. If we look at learning preferences as flexible, instead of rigid, we open ourselves up to trying new strategies that may improve our learning process and ultimately our learning experience.

Additionally, instructors may be able to use the learning styles instruments to get a conversation going with students. These conversations can enhance overall communication about learning, and reveal questions and resources that may not have otherwise been addressed.

What works for you?

While we may have preferences in how we learn, we can still learn in different ways. Use learning style assessments to help you gain an awareness of your preferences. Find the strategies that work for you and embrace an open approach – be willing to try new things. Remember that student success is a function of many influences and learning styles (or preferences) are just part of a bigger picture.

What do you think? Have learning style inventories helped you to identify ways in which you can improve your learning and study habits? Consider sharing your ideas and experiences with us here.

June 28th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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