Thinking about learning styles


Rendering of human brain.

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Excellent post today from Derek Bruff, reporting on a talk by Linda Nilson titled “The Truth About Learning Styles”. Linda’s slides are here (PDF), and here’s Derek’s short take (all emphases are Derek’s):

Are there learning styles?  That’s the question that Linda Nilson answered in her keynote. […] [T]he short version is that several popular learning styles models, including Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, theVARK model (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic), the Kolb learning style model, and the Myers-Briggs personality modelhave very little predictive validity. That is, a student’s “style” as determined by one of these tests doesn’t have an effect on how well they learn through various activities.

[…] Is there a learning style model with reasonable predictive validity? Yes, according to Linda. The Felder-Silverman model has “good construct and predictive validity”within the context of teaching engineering students. The Felder-Silverman model isn’t as well known as the other models listed here, but given its greater validity, it’s worth being familiar with.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a free, 44-question self-scoring questionnaire online that measures students’ positions within the Felder-Silverman model. I like to give this questionnaire to students as a homework assignment between the first and second day of class along with a reflection essay asking them to respond to their questionnaire results. Students are sometimes surprised with what the questionnaire says about them. It’s frequently the case among first-year students that they’ve never really considered that people learn in different ways or that working with a person who learns differently than they do sets up a potential conflict. Upon entering college — where students have much more responsibility for their own learning, and there is much more collaborative work happening than is often the case in high school — just getting students to keep the notion that people learn in different ways clear in their minds is a pretty big step. The questionnaire is free and takes about 10 minutes, so there’s really no good reason not to administer it, just to have the data on hand if nothing else.

Faculty, on the other hand, often make too much of learning styles. That each student learns in a different way is beyond question; but I think we can oversell the notion of learning styles quite easily and end up labeling students rather than helping them learn. And it’s crucial to understand the limitations and scientific validity of educational concepts like learning styles — or in this case to understand that this validity is fairly limited, and we should handle the notion of learning styles with care and perhaps with a grain of salt.

Derek’s post goes on to note the importance of moving away from “learning styles” and toward teaching modalities, focusing especially on those modalities that help the greatest number of learners regardless of “learning style”. This is an important difference, and there are things that we definitely know from cognitive science that speak to teaching modalities that make a difference with a large audience without regard to learning styles. Derek’s post/Linda’s talk goes into that in some detail; read the whole thing.

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6 Comments

Filed under Education, Higher ed, Teaching

6 responses to “Thinking about learning styles

  1. The Felder-Silverman index is the one I presented on at our faculty seminar days many years ago. I’m glad to see it is the one that emerged as one of the more legitimate measures. I find the Global / Sequential scale to be the most interesting, especially for mathematics learners, because you can really SEE it in some students.🙂

  2. Personally, I can classify myself quite well with VARK and biorhythm (early vs late starters). But since I never knew of the other models I cannot relate to them. Thanks for mentioning those!

    In general, regardless of the specific model used I think teachers can and should take care to offer their teaching in multiple forms. That is, you should give a good lecture consisting of good visualisation and a good talk as well as have comprehensive lecture notes available. If possible, alternative reading material should be referenced since the resp. author’s style more often than not influences how people can access the information.

    As many of those as possible should be freely availabe for students outside of the fixed time slots for people who rather learn e.g. at home and at night, but there also should be fixed times for lectures for people who like to structure their day that way.

    With modern technology, I think all this can be achieved with relatively small overhead compared to former times: just have your notes in a digital format and record your lectures. And, of course, be a good teacher.

    The worst counter example for this is what a friend studying history told me. A professor would walk to the front of the classroom, read from his book for 90 minutes (literally) and then walk out. That was all the course offered. Needless to say that this mono-technique approach minimizes the amount of people you reach.

  3. G

    Receiving instruction and studying Mathematics allows you to move the pieces – even though those pieces are usually theoretical. History as a subject does not give you comparative pieces to move. We have difficulties to interact with the structure of History (but we may watch the present as it turns into History, and then moving the pieces in different ways cannot happen). We do not become stuck on History in the same way that we can become stuck interacting with structures of Mathematics, symbols on paper, choosing steps. Neat, that we can devise a “laboratory” activity with Mathematics, but this is not so easy for History – but at least that subject has Plays, and Reneissance Fairs.

  4. Two words: Daniel Willingham
    The title of the talk I’ve embedded here
    http://mathcurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2008/08/learning-style-dont-exist.html
    is “Learning styles don’t exist” which he then clarifies to mean “as we think about them in teacher’s lounges across the country.”

    His basic point is that the material dictates the teaching, not the other way around. You can’t use words to describe music, you can’t read a foreign accent, etc. Regardless of the students’ personal styles, they must learn the swing of a hammer in a kinesthetic way, the sound of a piece of music, math in an abstract way instead of visually.

    • G

      From Curmudgeon:
      “Regardless of the students’ personal styles, they must learn the swing of a hammer in a kinesthetic way, the sound of a piece of music, math in an abstract way instead of visually.”
      Just be aware, Mathematics has very important visual details. Even basic number sense as taught in elementary school is related in some very visual ways: actual drawing squares and diagonals for square roots; rectangles and correspondence with multiplication; intersections of lines representing multiplications; sequential places in digited numbers for place value; drawings to show fractions and proportions…

  5. Pingback: What’s Your Temperament #Reverb10 Beautifully Different « Todd Lyden