Best Approach: Learning Styles or Learning Strategies?

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Yet another study, this one from the University of Michigan (Nancekivell, Shah, & Gelman, 2019), points to the resilience of beliefs about the existence and utility of the concept of learning styles. Numerous studies and most learning experts note the limitations, or more accurately, ineffectiveness of relying on learning styles to help students learn and retain information. The concept of learning styles—students being primarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners—has been around for more than thirty years. The idea is that if we assess the learning styles of our students and use that information to match instructional strategies, student learning efforts will be more successful. As intuitive as this approach seems to be, there is little evidence that it works.

Still, the University of Michigan study, involving 668 adults from the United States, found that 90% of the participants believed in learning styles as a valid concept for assisting people to learn. Interestingly, about half of the participants reported believing that people are born with established learning styles and that they are often inherited from their parents. This perception also has no validation in research.

These perceptions and beliefs are not confined to members of the public. A study in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Howard-Jones, 2014) found levels of confidence in learning styles also approaching 90% among educators. In addition, numerous resources available in the market still support the concept of learning styles as a valid instructional approach.

Meanwhile, students are often quick to adopt self-perceptions about their learning styles. Once they have a “learning style profile” they often begin to search out and routinely apply learning strategies aligned with their presumed learning style. Yet, a study published in the British Journal of Psychology (Knoll, Otani, Skeel, & Van Horn, 2017) concluded that relying on a perceived learning style does not appear to increase learning effectiveness or information retention. In fact, students often become over-reliant on their perceived style and become too narrow in the learning strategy options they consider.

So, how might we think about natural tendencies to utilize one type of learning modality over others? First, rather than attempting to match instructional strategies to learning styles, we can utilize a variety of approaches, including visual explanations and cues, auditory input and explanations, and activity-based opportunities for students to build understanding. The combination of engagement opportunities is more likely to build learning than utilizing a single approach. While some students may prefer one type of learning experience over others, they likely are capable of learning through other types of experiences, too.

Second, we can coach students to plan their learning activities to include multiple learning strategies. We can help them not to become over-reliant on a preferred approach, thinking that it is their natural way of learning. Often, it is a combination of strategies that creates the most effective approach and leads to the highest levels of learning retention. When approaching a learning task, students might ask themselves which combination of learning strategies are most likely to be useful. An additional benefit to this approach can be that if students struggle while using an initial set of strategies, they are aware of what they have tried and can select an alternative set that might be more useful.

Third, we can help parents to understand that while their children may have habits and preferences in how they learn, they also have the capacity and can benefit from expanding the ways in which they are encouraged to engage in learning tasks. We can also coach parents to see that the best learning approach can be contextual. Rather than defaulting to how their child has learned in the past, they might consider the type of learning task and the level of confidence and current skill level to nudge their children to try different approaches to learn.

How are you using multiple instructional strategies to enhance learning experiences? What suggestions do you have for how others might move beyond reliance on learning styles to employ more effective instruction and learning strategies?

Resources:
Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014, October 15). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817-824. doi: 10.1038/nrn3817

Khazan, O. (2018, April 11). The myth of learning styles. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-myth-of-learning-styles/557687/

Knoll, A. R., Otani, H., Skeel, R. L., & Van Horn, K. R. (2017, August). Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. British Journal of Psychology, 108(3), 544-563. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12214.

Nancekivell, S. E., Shah, P., & Gelman, S. A. (2019, May 30). Maybe they’re born with it, or maybe it’s experience: toward a deeper understanding of the learning style myth. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000366

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