Do you like to learn by seeing, hearing or doing?
According to some education researchers, it may not matter. They say the idea of teaching according to students’ “preferred learning styles” — auditory, visual or kinesthetic — has little to no empirical backing. But although criticism may be denting the idea’s popularity, it still persists — which may say something larger about the way teachers today are trained.
Students do have preferences when it comes to receiving information visually or verbally, said Mark A. McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University and a co-author of the book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” But to prove that designing lessons to fit students’ preferred learning styles actually helps them learn better, you’d have to randomly assign students to receive, for instance, either a visually or a verbally based approach. If teaching to students’ learning styles works, said Dr. McDaniel, “what you should see is visual learners do better on the visual than the verbal instruction, and verbal learners do better on the verbal than the visual instruction.”
Not many studies have actually done such a random assignment, and of those that Dr. McDaniel and his co-authors examined in a 2009 paper, “none of them showed that kind of interaction.”
I've always found the idea of teaching to individual learning style suspect, and I say that as a psychologist who knows a thing or ten about learning. It's one thing to identify students who have specific learning and processing impairments or other neuro or psychological difficulties. They do benefit from a learning environment tailored to work with their individual difficulties. It's quite another matter to assume that outside of this subset of students, all students benefit from teaching to individualized processing styles. Show me some real evidence and I'll change my mind, but for now I remain skeptical.
I used to work at a university, but not the one that employs me now. I was part of a program for returning adult students. An operating premise behind the program was that older students had, as a group, a different learning style from that of 18-22 year old students.
The program head (a Humanities PhD) developed an educational system that seemed crazy to me. Despite being a clinician who studied plenty of cognitive psychology during my undergrad and graduate education, I could not for the life of me grasp what it was that the administration thought they were doing in this program. Faculty would laugh about the incoherence of the program and students often complained of being confused.
It seemed to me that the program administrators had a romantic attachment to the notion of learning styles. Perhaps they misread some cherry-picked research and then went a little crazy with it.
I'm not saying that all teaching to learning style is like that. I'm just telling the story because it came to mind while writing this post.