Friday, December 18, 2009

No Evidence for Learning Style Optimization. Educational Apocalypse?

Cognitive scientists* reviewed over a thousand studies, but first, they thought it necessary to give the reading public a primer on basic study design. In the abstract no less.

First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

The learning style theory is so ubiquitous and so taken for granted, we sometimes forget how research is supposed to support education philosophy and practice. There is not a single education student who does not “know” they need to tailor their lessons to the particular learning styles of their students.

“Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals' learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly.

Sounds great, but now I feel empowered to confess a deep dark secret. As a classroom teacher, even now with over three decades of experience, I was never sure what learning style went with what kid. So I covered my bases. I made sure my lessons incorporated a mix of learning styles. Something for everyone.

My confession is even more damning. When I tutored one-on-one, I still could never be sure. Again, I covered my bases, going at the same material with a variety of approaches. When the light bulb snapped on, I never knew if it was because I had, at that moment, matched learning styles. So many variables...not enough control.

Exactly how was I supposed to determine individual learning styles. The diagnostic instruments may employ fancy verbiage, but it all boils down to one simple method: ask the student.

Assessments of learning style typically ask people to evaluate what sort of information presentation they prefer...Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.

Ask the student? Gee, to think all these years I had been racking my brain, observing students and trying to draw valid conclusions so I could teach them the way they learn best when all I had to do was ask them?

The only problem is education has put the pedagogical cart before the research horse.

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education.

Besides, it is entirely possible students do not know their learning style.

Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it is premature to abandon learning styles.

However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.

How many other “facts” of education are open to dispute? How might these unexamined “facts” be undermining true education reform?

*Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, Robert Bjork. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Volume 9, Issue 3 , Pages105 - 119. © 2009 Association for Psychological Science

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