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Do learning styles really exist? Pashler et al. say no

December 18, 2009

Do different people have different learning styles? It has become almost an article of faith among educators and students that the answer is yes, in large part due to the work of Howard Gardner (who recently went so far as to suggest that computerized assessment of learning styles may someday render traditional classroom teaching obsolete).

But a new review by Hal Pashler and colleagues suggests otherwise. They find ample evidence that people believe they have different learning styles — but almost no evidence that such styles actually exist.

When I first encountered Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as an undergrad, I found it fascinating. But I’ll admit that the more I teach, the more I’ve become skeptical when people invoke it. In principle it could lead to an optimistic, proactive attitude about learning: if a student isn’t making progress, let’s try teaching and learning in another modality. But in my experience, people invoke learning styles to almost the opposite effect. “I [or you] have a different learning style” has 2 problems with it. One, it’s an attributional “out” for somebody who isn’t doing well in class — it’s kind of a socially acceptable way of excusing poor performance by both teacher and student. And two, it’s an entity-theorist explanation (in the Carol Dweck sense) that can lead students to disengage from a class.

But skepticism about how people invoke it isn’t as deep as skepticism about the very existence of the phenomenon, which is where Pashler et al. are aiming. They acknowledge something well known among intelligence researchers, that there are subdomains of intellectual ability — e.g., in comparing two people with the same general IQ, one might be better at verbal tasks and the other better at visual-spatial tasks. But that’s about ability — Person A is better at one thing and Person B is better at another. Learning styles suggest that Persons A and B could both be good at the same thing if it was only presented to each in a custom-tailored way. Pashler et al. call this the “meshing hypothesis” and they say that well-designed, controlled studies find no support for it.

I don’t think this is the death-knell for multimodal teaching. When I teach statistics, I try to present each concept in as many modes as possible — a verbally narrated explanation, a visual depiction, a formal-symbolic representation (i.e., words, pictures, and equations). I still think that is a good way to teach. But the surviving rationale is that any one student will benefit from seeing the same underlying concept represented 3 different ways — not because the 3 modalities will reach 3 different kinds of students.

Of course, I’m sure this won’t be the last word. I expect there will be a vigorous response from Gardner and others. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: In re-reading this post, I realized I should probably clarify my references to Gardner. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is centrally about abilities, not learning styles; in that sense, it is not directly challenged by this research. However, I think Gardner is relevant for two reasons. One, I think a lot of people who discuss learning styles look to him as a role model and a leader. Multiple intelligences is often mentioned in conjunction with learning styles, and they both fall under a larger umbrella of proposing that we need to respect and work around cognitive diversity. Two, Gardner himself has discussed the idea that different students learn in different ways — not just that different people are good at different things. So even though MI theory is more about abilities, I think Gardner is an important influence on a set of related ideas.

7 Comments
  1. December 18, 2009 2:21 pm

    For those not up for the whole literature review, Dan Willingham’s book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” has an excellent chapter about learning styles, more accessible for undergraduates. Also, he has a Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk

    My dad teaches high school English, and I have seen the crap he has to deal with regarding the ridiculous trendy reforms involving learning styles at the K-12 level. Whereas at our level, the invoking of learning styles can be a cop-out, I think at the K-12 level it is far more pernicious. Telling English literature teachers they are failing because they don’t show videos, or motion associated with Walt Whitman, or decorations in their classroom, while ignoring the comments that they put on their students papers, should make Howard Gardner rally against learning styles, rather than mildly correcting those who twist and corrupt his ideas, or insisting his approach is correct without any empirical evidence in favor of it.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    December 18, 2009 3:00 pm

    Wow Cedar… I had a sense that learning styles are more popular in K-12 teaching, but I had no idea how dogmatically they are implemented. Do you have any sense of whether No Child Left Behind is making things better or worse? I’d think that the heavy focus on testing would put a squeeze on any pedagogical approach that doesn’t have a measurable effect on scores… but maybe that’s not how it works.

  3. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    December 18, 2009 3:37 pm

    Over on Facebook my friend Heath Row wrote:

    Maybe multimodal learning is important because it gives us more context hooks with which to remember something. Multiple associations of the same idea could help solidify that idea.

    My reply:

    I was thinking of almost the opposite, but you make a good point. I think it probably works differently at different stages. At a presentational level, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense — the more ways you present something, the more of a chance you have to grab somebody with a relevant “hook.” At later points in the learning process, I think that requiring students to engage with material in multiple modalities helps them strip away superficial presentational stuff so they can see the underlying concepts more clearly.

  4. Qween permalink
    December 30, 2009 1:41 am

    Perhaps Cedar should stop looking over his father’s shoulder and step inside the classroom as a student. IT is exhausting for most students to comprehend everything that is being said, or done in the classroom. Each of them is unique and come from various different situations, backgrounds, and cognitive abilities to say that we should not investigate other means of teaching. We are focused on teaching but not on student learning.. why? If a movie demonstrates the same content as the book, and some students can digest the information better, than why not use a movie to break up all the talking? This is the 21st century and our students are still at the bottom of national lists of student achievements? America is a leader in everything but education – why? If we are student orientated – why are they not learning? And yes, I am a college professor who has seen the change in students entering college and no, we are not ready!

  5. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    December 30, 2009 10:50 am

    Here’s another Facebook repost from Holly Arrow:

    Haven’t read Pashler, but their hypothesis as Sanjay presents it: “Learning styles suggest that Persons A and B could both be good at the same thing if it was only presented to each in a custom-tailored way” seems to assume an independence of content and approach that I find suspect. If their experiments test whether people with different learning styles are equally good at a domain as long as they approach it in line with their learning styles, I think this is misleading. For example, I am HORRIBLE at remembering numbers. If the domain is memorizing phone numbers, I have a workaround which is to memorize the spatial pattern of the number. A musician friend of mine remembers the melody. But my husband remembers the numbers directly, and that is *way* more efficient. Similarly, someone who is terrible at kinesthetic learning can still learn to dance by memorizing patterns of footprints on the dance floor and reciting a sequence of moves in their head. But that person (I strongly suspect) will never be able to match the person for whom kinesthetic learning is their number one mode…. and so on.

  6. Cedar permalink
    December 30, 2009 12:57 pm

    @Sanjay: Yeah, I think the vast number of educational reforms are incredibly dogmatic, including NCLB. You would think that the emphasis on standardized testing would put the squeeze on pedagogical approaches that don’t improve test scores, but the problem is that the people analyzing the test scores have three problems: 1) a vested interest in seeing them rise, 2) lack of statistical sophistication and 3) a lack of adequate longitudinal data and control.
    For example, one sure-fire way of increasing test scores is discouraging your lower scorers (read: English Language Learners) to be absent that day. The sophisticated regression techniques necessary to interpret the impact that a teacher and a school can have on a students standardized test scores are either lost or willfully ignored by policymakers in favor of simple misleading bar graphs. This is part of the problem in handing your educational system over to people who have become rich through business. Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, once on sort of opposite sides of educational reform, have a blog called Bridging Differences over at Education Week which basically consists of them citing thoughtful experts on education and bemoaning the cooking of the books and the ridiculous dogma of current educational policy.
    @Qween: I am a college professor too, and while it has been a little while since I was a student, I do interact with them every day, and I’d like to think that I am pretty involved in my children’s education (I have twins in 1st grade). The real question is how much variation in student learning is explained by their learning style, compared with other things like: cognitive ability, engagement with the material, experience and expertise of the teacher in that subject area, home environment, class size, etc. I think teaching a concept several different ways is very important, but (here is the critical part) it depends on the concept. I think teaching any sort of math with pictures, movies, stories, abstract formulas, graphical examples, concrete engineering problems is a great idea. What I think is ridiculous is parking Timmy in front of a projector watching a movie (because he is a visual learner) and making Lisa run around the room (because she is a kinesthetic learner) is what is ridiculous. Making an engaging lesson plan for everyone is a better plan, and then having individual or group activities interspersed.
    Ultimately, here is the rub for me. We want teachers who are expert in their fields, but more importantly, experts in teaching their fields. This includes knowing when to use multiple modalities and when to focus on one. Of all the educational reform I know of, the vast majority involves simple recipes for evaluating teaching, and an incredible distrust in teachers as professionals. All reformer superintendents you read about (Rhee, Klein, Duncan) are mostly known for closing schools, and firing people. They pledge great improvement in test scores, but these just aren’t coming. We have been hearing about how great charter schools are for a while now, but an honest look at whether they are improving student outcomes (and carefully comparing like students) yields very disappointing results.
    Finally, to end, as a cognitive psychologist, I would have to say that actually, each learner is not as unique as they think they are. We know a lot about how people (yes all people) learn, and unfortunately not that much of this science gets into our K-12 educational policy. I think a good place to start is to stop blaming the teachers, and start accepting that giving one teacher 25 five- and six-year-olds (what my kids had in California), with a ten minute recess (Louisiana), and a no P.E., art, or other “extra” activities (California eliminated funding for these “superfluous” activities), and drilling them with standardized test questions, is a recipe to get students who really don’t like school by by the time they get to college.

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