Learning Styles: Unraveled

An interesting report titled Learning Styles:  Concepts and Evidence was recently released which involved an extensive review of existing research done on the learning gains associated with instruction tailored to students’ individual learning styles.  The study was commissioned by Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the main journal of the Association for Psychological Science and was written by Harold Pashler, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego; Mark McDaniel, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis; Doug Rohrer, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida; and Robert Bjork, distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The review of research found that there is no evidence that students perform better when teachers cater to students’ preferred learning modality.  It should be noted that the lack of evidence could be attributed to the fact that most of the existing studies reviewed were not experimentally-valid.  (This, of course, leads researchers to point out the need for further, more experimental research.)

To be very clear, the report does not claim that students do not have learning style preferences (they do) but rather that tailoring instruction to these learning styles makes no difference in achievement.  Isn’t this surprising?  It contradicts a lot of what I learned in graduate school and have seen in practice in the classroom.  However, it is has significant implications for teaching – imagine not spending the time to differentiate instruction by learning style (among other things such as interest, skill level, etc.) for specific students or groups of students?  The study suggests that it may be more effective for teachers to integrate all learning styles into one lesson (called universal design for learning) rather than spend time diagnosing students’ learning styles and adjusting lesson design to suit.  Or, perhaps it is more effective for teachers to spend time differentiating by student interest and/or background skills/knowledge. 

Critics of the findings state that educators need to continue to appeal to students’ learning preferences to maintain and build interest in learning – which we all know is half the battle. 

I wonder what Howard Gardner thinks about all this…