Learning Styles

Will Thalheimer reports on Learning Styles Reviewed by Association for Psychological Science AND FOUND WANTING.

Do you believe meshing delivery format with a student’s learning style improves the quality of the learning?

    The learning-styles view has acquired great influence within the education field, and is frequently encountered at levels ranging from kindergarten to graduate school. There is a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks for teachers, and many organizations offer professional development workshops for teachers and educators built around the concept of learning styles.

For an indictment of learning styles as irrelevant to learning, see: Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

    We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.

Related posts:

Learning Styles and Pedagogy, the definitive report from the UK

Learning styles? Ha, ha, ha

Thanks to Donald Clark’s Plan B for pointing me to this one.

8 thoughts on “Learning Styles

  1. Stephen Downes

    I’ll write here what I wrote elsewhere (and what has not been refuted).

    The citation is two years old (14 months), and hardly new evidence that suddenly makes us rethink all the arguments. (So one wonders why Clark is running the item now. What suddenly changed?)

    Also, the journal itself is suspect. “All articles are commissioned by the editors, and PSPI does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. ” Hardly the model of scientific enquiry. The journal editors admit, “PSPI articles might be dismissed as ‘advocacy in the guise of science’.” Quite so.

    Moreover, it – like the rest of the material ‘refuting’ learning styles – is based on a strictly instructivist perspective, where the only strategy considered is the ‘dump and regurgitate’ model.

    As for Thalheimer’s challenge, it is biased against a result. For example, perhaps you could explain why this would be a requirement: “The learning-style program must be created in an instructional-development shop that is dedicated to creating learning programs for real-world use.”

    It simply creates a condition where someone like me cannot possibly prove him wrong, because I’ve been screened out ahead of any work I could do. (The $1000 isn’t exactly an inducement to spend 6 months work either.)

    Also, as I said to Karyn Romeris: I have been objecting to Thalheimer and the rest of the core content crowd for years. The main reaction from them has been silence. I don’t have a stake in the issue, but I can tell the difference between a political campaign and scientific research.

    This is a political campaign. Don’t be swayed.

  2. Stephen Downes


    > you can’t learn to swim by reading a book

    True. But…

    – you can teach some people to swim by throwing them in the water. Do that with other people and they drown.

    – you can teach other people to swim by giving them lessons. But some people (like me) will just end up hating the instructor and will never learn to swim at all.

    Now Thalheimer and other will say that there is no ‘evidence’ for learning styles. But either the characterization I make above is completely false and I have to discard the evidence of my own senses, or there is *something* to be said for the idea that different people need to be taught different ways.

  3. Stephen Downes

    p.s. Do you give exactly the same talk to every audience, or do you vary your talk – 3even though it’s the same content – for different audiences?

    Why would you vary it (assuming you do) if the character of the audience made no difference in their ability to receive, comprehend, and learn the material?

  4. Stephen Downes

    More ‘research’ from PSPI… http://ow.ly/1844H

    Critics of the report, including Psych Central’s John Grohol, suggest it is a biased, lopsided look at the efficacy research, promoting a black-and-white view of psychotherapy and clinical psychologists, when a more nuanced and complex approach is needed.

    Dr. Grohol noted, “This is a propaganda piece, not an objective study of the problem. Two of the three researchers have a direct conflict of interest with being involved in the new accreditation organization they promote in the article.”

    (OK, I’ll stop now… maybe – I have no particular personal stake in the issue of learning styles (aside from the implicit supposition that learners need therefore have no say in how to manage their own learning) but it annoys me to see people swayed by such an obviously transparent political / marketing campaign.)

  5. Jay Cross

    Stephen, thanks for weighing in. I want the record to be straight on this issue.

    Is this old news? Perhaps. But Will notes, “The date in the article and on the database PsycINFO says the article is from 2008. However, the copyright is from 2009 and the article includes citations from 2009 and the article appears as the “current article” on the APS (Association for Psychological Science) website, and news reports just started surfacing in December 2009 and January 2010. The evidence suggests the article just recently came out.”

    Donald Clark writes about stuff when he finds it, so I am not suspicious about why he brings something up now, even if it is newly published.

    The journal does not purport to be a peer-reviewed publication. Neither do Scientific American and National Geographic. This publisher puts it right out there: “Psychological Science in the Public Interest, published three times a year, presents commissioned analyses of important issues of international interest.” Perhaps they are advocates. So? Having a point of view does not make something wrong.

    I never give the same talk twice, Stephen, but that’s in part due to the fact that I learn by hearing myself talk. I vary it to avoid boredom, to explore new ways to presenting things, to address particular issues, and to improve my delivery. One of my prime goals for 2010 is to become a more effective communicator.

    Stephen, you quote John Grohol as saying, “This is a propaganda piece, not an objective study of the problem. Two of the three researchers have a direct conflict of interest with being involved in the new accreditation organization they promote in the article.”

    However, this quote from Dr. Grohol does not refer to the learning styles article. His gripe is with a report calling for the reform of clinical psychology training programs that came out two months earlier. It’s not fair to smear an article’s credibility by quoting someone who denigrates another article that appeared in a different issue of the journal.

    I don’t consider an article chock full of references “an obviously transparent political/marketing campaign.” Guess I’m not into conspiracy theory. Stephen, these guys don’t have anything obvious to gain. They are professors at University of California, San Diego; Washington University in St. Louis; University of South Florida; and University of California, Los Angeles.

    The learning styles issue is not on my front burner, either, but I hate to see people being suckered by myth and superstition. I’ll try to talk them out of hokey cults, voodoo, right-wing Republicanism, and wasting time with learning styles.

    PS: The argument is not whether people learn in different ways (that’s obvious), but whether it’s worthwhile to adapt instruction to those differences.

    PPS: (Hi, Karyn.) It’s Romeis.

  6. Rob Bartlett

    The learning styles debate is moot for most learniong pros. Develop the same content around different styles, and then get it out to learners, would they self select thier learning preference or would we assess and label them?

    Pick the method and media that you believe will lead to the change in performance and within that method give the learners an experience (from reading something to doing something) the chance to reflect (collect the data generated by the experience) generalize (find mearning, connections and conclusions) and then application (use it).

    Learning styles are just a preference, which is the point of this, I think. Just because I am a visual learner I cna learn in other ways. If we try and build our credibility around design decisions on something that is a preference we lose credibility.

  7. Simon Bostock

    Learning Styles pieces seem to catch my eye and I always find myself commenting, usually just below a comment from Stephen Downes.

    The big two points for me are:

    Learning Styles with a capital L and a capital S are different from saying ‘everybody learns in a different way’. Half of the 80+ inventories are proprietary models developed by consultants and I don’t get why they are worthy of so much impassioned defence.

    The argument about Learning Styles isn’t even whether they’re ‘correct’ or not. It’s whether they’re something that teachers and trainers can use to make learning more effective. And whether they’re more of a priority than other aspects of pedagogy. Again, I don’t get it – why is the debate around the research and not the practice? I haven’t yet seen anybody say anything even approaching, “Learning Styles are cool and I’ll tell you why – I use them this way and I noticed that when I did I achieved these results.”

    Frankly, I could care less about what people think of the research. How are people using it?

    Stephen, the Coffield Report (working links here – http://www.bfchirpy.com/2009/11/learning-styles-fable-ous-and-tragic.html) – does it suffer from the same credibility problems as the PSPI piece?

    It’s interesting to note that the Coffield Report was effectively smothered because it’s findings were incompatible with the views of its commissioners ie the UK government.

    There are many teachers in the UK who are explicitly assessed on their ability to implement Learning Styles in the classroom. And, let’s be clear, they’re not talking about ‘differentiation’ which is usually given its own separate category on assessment criteria.

    When people are assessed on their ability to implement approaches that are at best fuzzy – and at worse proprietary marketing nonsense – then I would characterise THAT as political.

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