What about Learning Styles?

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Mary Ellen Weimer had an interesting blog post in Faculty Focus last week. In her post, Challenging the Notion of Learning Styles, she shared some of the recent research that suggests that regardless of the match between mode of instruction and a student's learning style, performance is the same. Those of us in Educational Psychology have long discounted the notion of learning styles (e.g., including elaborated models of intelligence such as Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory) as having insufficient data to support its assertions.

So what does this mean for instructors? Should we test our students on the first day of class to learn what is their preferred learning style then proceed to twist and contort our every lesson so as to accommodate the visual, the kinesthetic, the auditory, and the every-other-style learner? Certainly not. Should instructors simply teach as they wish, since attending to students' reported learning styles apparently doesn't make a difference? Not recommended either. The fact is, it's not so simple.

Perhaps the answer is in moderation and mix. In Mary Ellen's summary of the research, she reminds us that, while students may not differ in their learning styles, the students are, nonetheless, different. It seems to me that it's on the basis of differences that do exist and that do matter that we should consider modifying our instruction. We should alter our instructional approaches when doing so would make a difference for students with different levels of prior knowledge, interest, or  ability (the research, Reiner and Willingham_2010.pdf, says these matter).

Unless we base our pedagogical decisions on characteristics such as these, we risk making our lectures more visual but failing to attend to gaps in prior knowledge. We risk creating elaborate hands-on projects while failing to recognize important disparities in aptitude across the class. We risk altering our instruction in ways that are not comfortable to us and still not successfully motivating the learners in our classes.

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