Learning preferences are not learning styles... and why the language we use matters

Author: 
Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D.

Let’s begin with debunking a persistent misconception about learning: Learning styles do not exist. Moreover, matching instruction strategies to a particular learning style, such as using visuals to teach a “visual learner,” does not improve learning for that particular student (Pashler, McDaniel, Roher, & Bjork, 2009). Worse, using the wrong sensory modality for instruction for some content may impair learning if the content is better suited to learning strategies delivered in another modality. For example, providing a lecture on knitting to an “auditory or verbal learner” will not improve learning if this is the only form of instruction. All learners will benefit from visual instruction and will require hands-on practice (kinetic learning strategies) to learn to knit.

 

Why the language we use matters when we talk to students about learning strategies and learning preferences.

 

The myth of “learning styles” persists for several reasons. One source for this misconception is the genuine need to accommodate individuals who cannot access materials in a particular modality. A second source is based on personal experiences with preferred activities. Some people prefer to read a book whereas others prefer to watch a film. If we talk about “learning styles” when we mean to talk about preferences, we inadvertently reinforce the false belief in “learning styles.” Language matters.

 

Certainly, some individuals have physical or cognitive characteristics that impair accessibility to learning in that modality. Hearing impairments create obstacles for lecture-based instruction. Dyslexia and other reading disabilities limit the accessibility of written materials. Visual impairments (blindness, or, in some cases, color blindness) interfere with learning from images. Limitations on mobility or fine motor skills make hands-on learning activities less effective. The fact that a particular modality is not accessible to a student does not mean that the student has a “learning style.” Materials presented through one sensory modality are simply not accessible to them for learning.

 

Similarly, preferred activities are not “learning styles.” We may enjoy some activities more than others, but our preferences do not mean we cannot learn if we use a less preferred activity. We might be more motivated to engage in a learning strategy that uses our preferred learning activity. If I like to watch videos more than I like to read, I might be more likely to complete an assignment that requires watching a video than one that requires reading a text. However, my preferences do not mean I will learn more by watching the video than by doing something else (e.g., reading or hands-on practice). 

 

Different content and skills are sometimes learned best when students use specific modalities to interact with the content, regardless of the learner’s preferred activities (Bruff, 2019). For example, botony students will learn to identify plants more accurately if they study pictures than if they listen to a lecture or read verbal descriptions. Students in a poetry class will learn more about writing poems if they listen to poems read aloud than if they study images that depict the meanings of poems. Students of piano or dance must engage in physical activity to learn to play piano or dance. Interestingly, for all disciplines, students learn even better if they engage with the content and skills using a variety of modalities and learning activities (e.g., viewing images of art and reading verbal descriptions and analysis of the work).

 

Research on how people learn indicates that people learn best when they use multiple modalities to think about, practice, and encode new content and skills (Ambrose, et al., 2010; Bruff, 2019). If I read content, listen to a lecture, and study images and graphs related to the content, I am more likely to remember than if I think about the content in only one way. Research on memory and cognition refers to this phenomenon as the benefit of dual coding (Paivio, 2007) or breadth of processing (Anderson & Reder, 1979). If memory for new information uses both images and words, I have two ways to remember the information. If I forget the information coded in one modality, I might still be able to remember it by using the other encoding modality. Redundant systems work more reliably than a system that operates correctly with one procedure only. 

 

Application: Effective Learning Strategies

 

  • Present material in a variety of modalities: visual (pictures and graphics) and verbal (written and spoken). 
  • Provide concrete examples as well as abstract explanations of concepts. Discuss the connection between characteristics of the concrete examples and key elements of the abstract representation.
  • Distribute learning activities over time. Repeated exposure and practice of new material spaced across intervals of time (a few weeks) produces longer-term learning. The passage of time between each exposure creates a different learning context. Variations in learning contexts create multiple cues that students can use to help them remember.
  • Interleave review of examples of solved problems with activities that require students to solve problems independently. As expertise and problem-solving skill increase, ask students to spend less time studying examples of solved problems and more time working independently to solve new problems.
  • Use quizzes and exams as opportunities to learn. Tests require students to practice retrieving information from memory. Students get feedback about retrieval success during the test and from their test scores. They can learn about how well the strategies they used to learn new material worked. Ask students to reflect on how they prepared for an exam and ask them to consider whether using a different study strategy might improve future test performance. Post-exam reflections (exam wrappers) help students calibrate their judgments about how well they prepared and how much they learned. These insights can guide their choices for future study activities.

 

Resources

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass. 

Anderson, J. R., & Reder, L. M. (1979). An elaborative processing explanation of depth of processing. In L. S. Cermak and F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Levels of processing in human memory (pp. 385-404). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional tech: Principles to guide the use of educational technology in college teaching.West Virginia University Press.

Paivio, A. (2007). Mind and its evolution: A dual coding theoretical approach. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.

 

 

Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D. is the Director Emeritus at the Center for University Teaching, Learning and Assessment at University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL

This article is released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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