Cognitive Science for Learning – the Myth of Learning Styles

For the longest time I thought my learning style was visual. I believed that I learned best by reading, and taking notes – and then by reading again. Merely listening is not a full learning experience for me, I have to move my hands, put pen to paper to write or doodle, and later read (and reinforce) what I have written. This is how I learned how to speak my languages, this is how I learned new marketing skills, this is how I learned how to code. Reading. Writing down. Looking at my paper – or my screen – as I wrote, and engaging memory to fingertips to remember, and goading my brain to add to existing knowledge.

But now I read that “learning styles” is a myth. Really? Is this so? I was surprised and needed convincing. Before writing this blog entry I reviewed reference articles to confirm that yes, it appears that the belief in learning styles is a result based on “uniformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” According to Howard-Jones (2014) “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”

Why is this belief so prevalent, and so popular?

Goldhill (2016) states that this belief in learning styles appears to be based on the well-proven fact that different regions of our brain have different roles in processing visual, sensory and auditory stimuli.  Howard-Jones (2014) in his exposition of the myth, explains that the belief lies in students being able to learn differently depends on “which part of their brain works better”. The myth has spread probably because it hints at an idea that appears sensible: people learn differently. Unfortunately, there are dozens and dozens of ways to separate people by type, so it’s hard to know which distinctions to use for which learner, for which topics, and which situations.

Reiner and Willingham (2010) opine that “popular current conception of learning styles equates style with the preferred bodily sense through which one receives information, whether it is visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (for some reason, no one claims that there are tactile or olfactory learners).”

Aharonian (2014) believes that the idea may have taken strong hold because it is appealing. It enables us to perceive ourselves as individuals, it is a positive and optimistic proposition that each person has equivalent potential to learn if the instruction can be matched to their individual learning style. It also places the responsibility for students’ achievement (or lack thereof) on the teachers and the educational system rather than the students.

What evidence is there that this approach, around for a few decades now, affects learning outcomes? Hardly any. Studies by Reiner and Willingham and others conclude that “students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning.”

In a recent TEDx talk, Marshik (2015) states: “The idea of learning styles is sexy. It sounds good. It feels good. Saying that people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different, and differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom. But me saying that learning styles don’t exist is not saying people are the same. People do differ in many important ways; learning styles just isn’t one of them, and just because some ideas sound really good, just because we really want something to be true, doesn’t make it so…. A reason that this belief exists is confirmation bias, that natural tendency we have as humans that we want to be right — or we don’t want to be wrong.”

In conclusion the danger of this myth is two-fold: instructors are wasting time and resources accommodating learning styles, and these accommodations do not help learning. Moreover, the belief in learning styles prevents teachers from trying strategies other than the preferred learning style to help the student learn the information in a better way. Marshik concludes her presentation by stating that “All of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways – we are not as limited as we think we are”.

The 18-minute video is well worth watching, and is linked below:

References

Aharonian, A. (2014). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.skeptic.com/insight/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

Goldhill, O. (2016). The Concept of Different Learning Styles Is One of the Greatest Neuroscience Myths. Retrieved from http://qz.com/585143/the-concept-of-different-learning-styles-is-one-of-the-greatest-neuroscience-myths/

Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and Education: Myths and Messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817–824 retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v15/n12/full/nrn3817.html

Marshik, T. (2015). Learning Styles and the Importance of Critical Self-Reflection [Video file]. TEDx University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=388&v=855Now8h5Rs

Reiner, C. & Willingham D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.changemag.org/archives/back%20issues/september-october%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

 

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Cognitive Science for Learning – the Myth of Learning Styles

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