Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning Styles are off the menu

I've been reading some students work which included references to Learning Styles. Whenever I come across Learning Styles my 'reductionism alarm' goes off for some reason.
I took a while chasing back the citations and found my way to a firmer position. Unless I'm mistaken, the easiest way to getting at a journal article has to be through linking GoogleScholar with the University's electronic library (see the Scholar pages about it).
The references were easy enough to pull into Zotero for sharing with you below... Some are very good, others less so. I'll let you work out which is which.
There was something about what Ettiene Wenger said at the Networked Learning Conference last week which connected with the way I see Learning Styles used. He talked about making sure that when we are trying to develop theory or say anything about what we do, for that matter, we should try and use language that people can relate to. He puts the success of the Communities of Practice theory down to just that. People find it easy to relate to the core concepts.
With Learning Styles you get a nice questionnaire and it makes you feel you're being 'all scientific'. The fact is that to really pick the correct learning style AND then act on it you would have to get quite radical about it, separating the students into groups accordingly. Then you'd have to keep re-checking throughout your relationship with this group to make sure that they hadnt shifted, as they could do at any moment. In the end you would have been better of simply aiming for active learning, employing multiple approaches to supporting learning, using pictures, hands-on, words, etc. Is this such a revelation? I suppose it is if you merely expect to pitch up and drone for an hour or two and call that lecturing. Sorry if that describes you, by the way.
I did more backward chaining than the student, or the 'peer reviewed' author did, and came across 'the other' article by a (non-pointlessly abrasive) American version of Donald Clark. On one page he has a factual review of Learning Styles, which was used to support Learning Styles in the article. But, on a neighbouring page, 'Putting Learning Styles into Perspective', he has this brilliant paragraph which my student and the article author somehow missed and the student never bothered to check out:
First, it should be noted that no single measurement of style ensures that a learner's needs will be met. It is perhaps more important to build an adaptable learning environment that presents the material in a variety of methods than try to determine each learners' style. Likewise, recognizing your own style will help to ensure you do not unintentionally force one learning preference upon the learners. The more styles you address, the easier the instruction will be received by the learners. This is because you will be striving to reach their needs, rather than yours. Also, material presented in a variety of methods keeps the learners interested and reinforces itself. (Clark 2000)
So, yes, as a tool for reflection, useful. But as some kind of key to unlock the mysteries of how people learn? Not today thank you.

Beagley, L. (2011). Educating Patients: Understanding Barriers, Learning Styles, and Teaching Techniques. Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing, 26(5), 331–337. doi:10.1016/j.jopan.2011.06.002

Breckler, J., Joun, D., & Ngo, H. (2009). Learning Styles of Physiology Students Interested in the Health Professions. Advances in Physiology Education, 33(1), 30–36. doi:10.1152/advan.90118.2008
Cassidy, S. (2004). Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, and measures. Educational Psychology, 24(4), 419–444. doi:10.1080/0144341042000228834
Clark, D. (2000). Learning Styles. Putting Learning Styles into Context. Retrieved April 12, 2012, from
James, S., D’Amore, A., & Thomas, T. (2011). Learning preferences of first year nursing and midwifery students: Utilising VARK. Nurse Education Today, 31(4), 417–423. doi:10.1016/j.nedt.2010.08.008
Kratzig, G. P., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual Learning Style and Learning Proficiency: A Test of the Hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology February 2006, 98(1), 238–246. Retrieved from
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

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