NPR recently published an article entitled, “Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely”. Journalist Patti Neighmond reported on research being conducted by psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia who reportedly claims that “it’s a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it’s presented”. He goes a step further to say that “teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners.”
The article quotes another researcher, Doug Rohrer, from the University of South Florida who dismisses the notion of learning styles completely because he has allegedly “not found evidence from a randomized control trial.”
Rohrer’s words indicate that if studies are not “randomized control trials” that they are worthless. While I agree that such studies have their place in research, particularly in medicine and the hard sciences, I would argue that the human learner is comprised of more than neurology or cognition, and that emotions, perceptions and learning abilities can not simply be measured using randomized control trials. Not to mention cultural differences. Anyone who truly believes that culture does not influence learning styles need to investigate the matter on a deeper level.
The article goes on to say that teachers should “mix things up” in the classroom. Well, that I agree with. (Elementary, my dear Watson.) When we teach, we are teaching groups of students, not individual learners.
But to tell me that I as a language teacher should not “tailor instruction to different kinds of learners”, all I can ask is “Really?!” So, when I have had deaf or hard of hearing students in my class, I should not have increased or emphasized visual aids in my class? Or when I had a blind student, that I should not have repeated the information more than once or twice, so that she could be sure to hear it properly?
Really, I just shake my head at fellow scholars who say such things. Honestly, do these same scientists also support eugenics, to ensure that all humans learn in precisely the same way and that the effectiveness of the methods employed can be empirically proven using only randomized control tests?
The article claims that Rohrer advises against using the notion of learning styles, because there is no proof they they actually mean anything.
That made me ask, “Is it really possible that there is no proof that learning styles work?” In less than 30, I found ten studies — just focussed on language learning — that counter Rohrer’s position. While I did not find the “randomized control tests” that he demands as the only acceptable evidence, I did find numerous other studies (including a few control studies, though they were randomized).
If I can find ten studies in less than 30 minutes, relating specifically to language learning, how many studies have been conducted across the disciplines, over the past several decades? Can we really say that learning styles are bogus? What are your thoughts?
Eme, E., Lacroix, A., & Almecija, Y. (2010). Oral Narrative Skills in French Adults Who Are Functionally Illiterate: Linguistic Features and Discourse Organization. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53(5), 1349-1371.
Tanyeli, N. (2008). The Efficiency of Online English Language Instruction on Students’ Reading Skills. Paper presented at the International Technology, Education and Development Conference (INTED). Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED504676
Research studies (non-control)
Erton, I. (2010). Relations between Personality Traits, Language Learning Styles and Success in Foreign Language Achievement. Hacettepe University Journal of Education, 38, 115-126.
Kucuk, M. G.-K., E. ; Tasci, D. (2010). Support Services and Learning Styles Influencing Interaction in Asynchronous Online Discussions. Educational Media International, 47(1), 39-56.
Lincoln, F., & Rademacher, B. (2006). Learning Styles of ESL Students in Community Colleges. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 30(5-6), 485-500.
Psaltou-Joycey, A. (2008). Cross-Cultural Differences in the Use of Learning Strategies by Students of Greek as a Second Language. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 29(4), 310-324.
Psaltou-Joycey, A., & Kantaridou, Z. (2009). Plurilingualism, Language Learning Strategy Use and Learning Style Preferences. International Journal of Multilingualism, 6(4), 460-474.
Turner, M. (2010). Using Student Co-Regulation to Address L2 Students’ Language and Pedagogical Needs in University Support Classes. Language and Education, 24(3), 251-266.
Wang, L. (2007). Variation in Learning Styles in a Group of Chinese English as a Foreign Language Learners. International Education Journal, 8(2), 408-417. Retrieved from ERIC: http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ834277
Wong, J. K.-K. (2004). Are the Learning Styles of Asian International Students Culturally or Contextually Based? International Education Journal, 4(4), 154-166. Retrieved from ERIC: http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ903817
Zhang, L.-F. (2007). Intellectual Styles and Academic Achievement among Senior Secondary School Students in Rural China. Educational Psychology, 27(5), 675-692.
Scholarly studies (Conceptual and theoretical)
Abraham, R. (1978). The Nature of Cognitive Style and Its Importance to the Foreign Language Teacher.
Jones, S. (1993). Cognitive Learning Styles: Does Awareness Help? A Review of Selected Writings. Language Awareness, 2(4), 195-207.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.