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).”