New report says learning styles are bogus. (Seriously?!)

School girl on stairsNPR 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?

Control studies

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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5 Responses to New report says learning styles are bogus. (Seriously?!)

  1. But could there be some universal learning style or common way of understanding that we underestimate? I tend to agree with multiple learning styles, esp after having three kids myself, but I do wonder if there is something more basic that every learner embraces.

    • I agree that some cognitive aspects of learning are universal. Learning styles are personal preferences, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t all have some shared capacities. I agree with you on that point. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Gareth Evans says:

    In my opinion, to assume that there are learning styles is analogous to the “men from Mars,women from Venus” hypothesis, or, in a classical education, the adoption of a primarily rhetorical position.to the subjection of dialectic and grammar. In one of the assessment sites, a student was criticized for not sufficiently adopting the view of the “other”.
    Applied rhetoric is now called advertising and uses focus groups and advanced psychology in its craft. It is no surprise to me that one of the foremost grammarians of the twentieth century, Marshall McLuhan, began his teaching career by having his students confront the advertising of the day to free his students to make conscious decisions on their own welfare.
    The three language arts, are just that, arts or methodological assumptions. The only certainty is as McLuhan, proved to my satisfaction,that if one art is ignored then misunderstanding and strife will prevail.
    Again in my opinion, language learning and teaching should strive to give voice to thought. A perverse reading of your statement might be interpreted as claiming that one should try and read the mind and tendencies of the other and “tailor” a message to get through to the other. I believe each of us has responsibility for ourselves.
    I do not know if your position is that students have an innate learning style and teachers must scope out that style and accept responsibility for student learning or if you are saying variety is the spice of life and the more the better.
    I will take a look at the Wang article cited and comment specifically on that.

    • Gareth Evans says:

      I looked at the Tanyelli and Lihui Wang articles.
      Tanyelli looked at second year students in the Faculty of Law at EMU taking English(Turkish is medium of instruction).It was found that in students using computer-assisted strategies that there was an improvement in reading comprehension. As one student said, “I usually get nervous about reading in class”.If the lack of nervousness was associated with an increase in reading comprehension then it does not necessarily follow that the use of a computer-assisted teaching strategy directed to a particular learning is the reason for the increased comprehension..
      Lihui Wang holds that”learning style is the habitual preference learners demonstrate in their learning activities;formed from the interaction of factors such as individual experience,cognition,personality and environment; and having the characteristics of individuality, consistency and stability.”
      There were 152 participants in the study. Very few had strong preferences and none showed strong preference for Verbal and Global learning styles. Maybe those who are concerned with the broad context and use of words should just give up.
      But there is hope, as the author states “:learning styles, together with other constructs.. were postulated” to depict variances among individuals, In my experience every person is unique unique and I accept that as a given ,I donot need a theory

      • Hi Gareth,

        I had a quick look at the articles I posted. The point wasn’t to justify learning styles, but rather to demonstrate that studies about learning styles do actually exist. The US researchers claimed there was no evidence. I suppose it depends in part, on what counts as evidence. As an educational qualitative researcher, I find deep value in qualitative work that explores the complexity of the human situation. To claim that only double-blind, randomized control testing, conducted using quantitative methods is the only acceptable form of evidence is not only short-sighted, I’d say it’s downright irresponsible. Numbers alone do not offer a comprehensive understanding of humans’ ability to learn. But then again, any self-respecting qualitative researcher couldn’t say anything different, could she?🙂

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