August 13, 2012
A recent discussion on a WCET listserve got me thinking about how much emphasis is placed on the testing of Learning Styles. The listserve post was actually a request for references for good vendors who offer learning style testing for students. When I hear academics talking about student learning styles I’ve often wondered about the validity of the testing and if there has been enough research behind the testing to expend resources, both monetary and time, in having students take the tests and then to further redevelopment course materials and course interactions to meet student needs or preferences. I think the word choice of “needs” vs “preferences” is the key to the discussion. The article, “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, volume 9, number 3, December 2008, by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork, helped to confirm my thoughts.
The article confirms that there have been very few credible validations to confirm that a specific style will produce a better educational outcome. The authors determined,
We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria. 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.
I would even argue that if the student is motivated, he or she might even learn better when the learning style was very different from the student preference, although I’m still looking for research to back that up. And certainly, if students are paired for group projects, wouldn’t the results be better if the students had different learning styles? Could dependence on a specific learning style actually hinder the learner as suggested by this blog post? and shouldn’t we be teaching students how to learn when confronted with all types of instructional methods.
I’ve taken several of the free Learning Style tests online and found that you can easily manipulate the answers to come out with the appearance of a specific learning style. This particular questionnaire (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html) asks questions pertaining to four aspects of learning styles: active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global and provides results that might help a student understand more about what method might work best for them. Plus it might help students determine what alternative activities they might need to pursue in their own study time that might supplement content given by an instructor. The test results showed I was right in the middle between active and reflective and sequential and global. I have tendencies towards sensing rather than intuitive and even higher tendency towards visual rather than verbal learning. As I was taking the test, one of the questions was: For entertainment, I would rather (a) watch television or (b) read a book. I found myself looking for an alternative answer that was, “it depends” instead of a more black and white answers as given. Almost every question asked had me thinking that “it depends.”
If you have a robust teacher, one who is engaging and knows how to make connects with students it probably doesn’t matter if you are a student with a preference as a visual learner or an auditory learner. That instructor will use a variety of methods to deliver content and to engage students so that all types of learner preferences are covered. That doesn’t mean that everything is done in multiple formats, it means that there is a variety of tools that are used throughout the course. Not everything is offered as text documents but there are videos, activities, chance for interaction, etc.
Referring back to the original article, I think this is a good reminder as one develops a course. “Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open for our students, our children, and ourselves. Toward that end, we think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning.”