Not learning in style

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OU students who are or once were enrolled on the U101: Design & Creative Thinking in the 21st Century will no doubt recall the TMA11 assignment, which despite the odd numerical  sequencing, is actually the first TMA that U101 students encounter on the module. For those  who aren’t familiar with it, the nature of the assignment is to get students to undertake a series of non-threatening creative activities,such as finding as many uses for a paper bag within five minutes, or, using a series of circles printed on a poster, to draw ‘roles’ that exemplify aspects of their lives. Additionally,  students are asked to make  comment and pronouncements about their learning styles as determined by the undertaking of an online learning style survey, the results of which lead to the following learning style  categories:

  • Visual Learning Style
  • Aural Learning Style
  • Verbal Learning Style
  • Physical Learning Style
  • Logical Learning Style
  • Social Learning Style
  • Solitary Learning

For me, most importantly in my role as a tutor, this is where things get tricky. As part of  the feedback, tutors are expected to make meaningful comment on the student’s indicated  ‘preferred’ learning style and – more significantly – there is an implicit concomitant  assumption that tutors will then use the information to adapt their teaching and tutorial  support for each student based on the student’s indicated learning style preference. That’s quite an assumption. The shocking and inconvenient fact of the matter is that when it comes to  learning styles and the effectiveness of teaching in response to learning style preferences,  I’ve found myself moving from a position of relaxed agnosticism on the issue to one of deep  skepticism. In short; I’ve come to think that designing instruction for learning styles is largely an alchemical delusion.

There is something undeniably appealing about the notion that one can teach so much more  effectively if one somehow modifies ones approach to the particular preferences of any number of students. But one has to dig only a little below the surface of the idea to become  very much aware of real and persistent nagging doubts. But let’s go with the flow for a  moment. A teacher, faced with a class of, say, 30 students, is fired up with a determination  to deliver instruction that responds to the learning style preferences of the assembled  students. The obvious first question is; well, in real, practical terms, how precisely is s/he  going to do that? Even assuming that the students learning style preferences fell neatly into  any one of the seven learning styles listed above, how can the teacher accommodate all these  contrasting learning styles at the same time to all the assembled students within a single  lesson time slot?

A more personally empirical piece of evidence that has long cast suspicion in my mind that the  learning style mantra is somehow fundamentally flawed is that whenever I take one of these  learning surveys I never seem to get the same result twice even when I do the same one in rapid succession. Some of them have me down as a  hardline logician, others as some sort of day-dreaming visual learner or as a physical learner with a fondness for risk taking and experimentation. The stark and inconvenient reality is that I  am, of course, all those things and a great deal more too; as most people are in life. Surely, if these learning style surveys were worth their salt then they would over time at least flag  up a statistically better than evens chance of showing a consistent learning style flavour for any particular  individual?

It’s a topic I hope to come back to, but in the meantime I leave with the words of Richard E. Clark, Professor of Educational Psychology and Technology Director, Center for Cognitive Technology, University of Southern California:

Three major reviews of the research on learning styles have been published in top journals in the past decade. All of them have reached the same conclusion. Learning styles do not predict learning under different instructional conditions. There are no “visual” or “verbal” learners etc. No reviews of the research on learning styles have reached a positive conclusion. There are studies of learning styles (many of them designed by advocates or sales people for different style measures) that reach positive conclusions but the reviews conclude that those studies are poorly designed (or at least designed to find positive results for favored style measures).”