Landing : Athabascau University

Being-taught habits vs learning styles

In case the news has not got through to anyone yet, research into learning styles is pointless. The research that proves this is legion but, for instance, see (for just a tiny sample of the copious and damning evidence):

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32-35. doi:doi: 10.1080/00091383.2010.503139

Derribo, M. H., & Howard, K. (2007). Advice about the use of learning styles: A major myth in education. Journal of college reading and learning, 37, 2.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. 041543).

No one denies that it is possible to classify people in all sorts of ways with regards to things that might affect how they learn, nor that everyone is different, nor that there are some similarities and commonalities between how people prefer to or habitually go about learning. When these elaborately constructed theories claim no more than that people are different in interesting and sometimes identifiably consistent ways, then I have little difficult accepting them in principle, though it's always worth observing that there are well over 100 of these theories and they cannot all be right. There is typically almost nothing in any of them that could prove them wrong either. This is a hallmark of pseudo-science and should set our critical sensors on full alert. The problem comes when the acolytes of whatever nonsense model is their preferred flavour try to take the next step and tell us that this means we should teach people in particular ways to match their particular learning styles. There is absolutelly no plausible evidence that knowing someone's learning style, however it is measured, should have any influence whatsoever on how we should teach them, apart from the obvious requirement that we should cater for diversity and provide multiple paths to success. None. This is despite many decades spent trying to prove that it makes a difference. It doesn't.

It is consequently a continual source of amazement to me when people pipe up in conversations to say that we should consider student learning styles when designing courses and learning activities. Balderdash. There is a weak case to be made that, like astrology (exactly like astrology), such theories serve a useful purpose of encouraging people to reflect on what they do and how they behave. They remind teachers to consider the possibility that there might be more than one way to learn something and so they are more likely to produce useful learning experiences that cater for diverse needs, to try different things and build flexibility into their teaching. Great - I have no objection to that at all, it's what we should be aiming for. But it would be a lot more efficient to simply remind people of that simple and obvious fact rather than to sink vast sums of money and human resources into perpetuating these foolish myths. And there is a darker side to this. If we tell people that they are (just a random choice) 'visual', or  'sensing' or 'intuitive' or 'sequential' learners then they will inevitably be discouraged from taking different approaches. If we teach them in a way that we think fits a mythical need, we do not teach them in other ways. This is harmful. It is designed to put learners in a filter bubble. The worst of it is that learners then start to believe it themselves and ignore or undervalue other ways of learning.

Being-taught habits

The occasion for this rant came up in a meeting yesterday, where it was revealed that a surprising number of our students describe their learning style (by which they actually mean their learning preference) to be to listen to a video lecture. I'm not sure where to begin with that. I would have been flabbergasted had I not heard similar things before. Even learning style believers would have trouble with that one. One of the main things that is worth noting, however, is that this is actually a description not of a learning preference but of a 'being-taught habit'. Not as catchy, but that's what it is.

I have spent much of my teaching career not so much teaching as unteaching: trying to break the appalling habits that our institutional education systems beat into us until we come to believe that the way we are being taught is actually a good way to learn. This is seldom the case - on the whole, educational systems have to achieve a compromise between cost-efficiency and effective teaching -  but, luckily, people are often smart enough to learn despite poor teaching systems. Indeed, sometimes, people learn because of poor teaching systems, inasmuch as (if they are interested and have not had the passion sucked out of them) they have to find alternative ways to learn, and so become more motivated and more experienced in the process of learning itself. Indeed, problem-based and enquiry-based techniques (which are in principle a good idea) sometimes intentionally make use of that kind of dynamic, albeit usually with a design that supports it and offers help and guidance where needed.

If nothing else, one of the primary functions of an educational system should be to enable people to become self-directed, capable lifelong learners. Learning the stuff itself and gaining competence in a subject area or skill in doing something is part of that - we need foundations on which to build. But it is at least as much about learning ways of learning. There are many many ways to learn, and different ways work better for different people learning different things. We need to be able to choose from a good toolkit and use approaches that work for the job in hand, not that match the demands of some pseudo-scientific claptrap. 

Rant over.



  • was revealed that a surprising number of our students describe their learning style (by which they actually mean their learning preference) to be to listen to a video lecture...


    Should we really be surprised at all by this? Portable devices (iphones, ipads, android phones & tablets, etc.) connected 24x7 are the latest wonder sensation. Everyone who wants to be trendy must have one. The dominant activities appear to be texting all day and/or watching videos or listening to music all day long. Or all three at the same time. After all, we're told we're a totally multi-tasking society now (oops! one of them just drove off a bridge...)

    So if one is accustomed to consuming video all day long, is it then any surprise that there would be a desire for learning materials in the same video consumable style? Certainly MIT and Stanford have packaged tons and tons of their courses this way, plus it's just so simple for them. Aim an inexpensive camera at the prof talking away at the multi-googleplex-whiteboard and press record. A couple of minutes editing and post to the on-line website. Poof! Instant consumable 'learning materials'. No muss, no fuss, no effort.

    Our (Athabasca University) greatest weakness in this new youtube wonderland is that we don't offer many face to face courses, and thus don't have a handy 'ready to record' set of weekly lectures to compete (complete with fresh faced audience of actual learners...)

    Of course, it's hard to compete with cat videos,  which is probably the true 'preferred learning style' if we were really to dig to the heart of the matter. ;-)

    Richard Huntrods November 7, 2013 - 11:11am

  • @Jon - Very bold thing to say, especially in present day's imposed societal aspirations to equalize every segment of our lives across the entire population - throughout the history we have witnessed people being burned on a stake for less. The truth is, we are definitely not the same on so many levels that any generalized one-size-fits-all knowledge transfer method is out of the question. In the recent years the term "visual learner" has become very popular, indirectly criticizing the traditional book-based educational system, inducing pressure, and finally resulting in overemphasized visual learning. But the visual learning is just one example - presently with a loudest echo.

    In 1999 as a part of my job in education, I came in contact with (arguably) visual approaches of Tony Buzan, Edward de Bono, Art Semorie, etc., and that pushed me into a completely new belief that visual learning IS the answer. A truckload of books and 6 years later I held speeches at the local universities and colleges, successfully promoting that "learning style". I was deeply convinced that this provided the ultimate answer to all of the learning problems. Anatomy? No problem, just close your eyes, reduce your size to a blood cell and start climbing those bones, from the toe up (whoops, I just slid down the soleal line of tibia). Economy or business management? Just think of it as a prostitution and it will provide countless hours of laughter making it fun to learn - works like a charm. But couple of thousand students later, I started to realize that quite frequently it is simply easier to sit down and read a book than to map its content, or that one cannot close eyes and visualize polymorphism or a differential equation. In most of the mathematics-based sciences (physics, chemistry, statistics, etc.) the outcomes are achieved through practice, such as solving the equations, thus effectively disabling visual learning for the purpose. Therefore, does that imply that a visually oriented student has no or less chance of reaching the preset learning outcomes in those areas? Absolutely not! I had some students coming back to me saying that the suggested method/technique itself is too cumbersome when applied to a variety of content. I finally realized that there is no Gordian Knot solution to learning - assuming that there is acknowledges exclusivity to learning styles and this is VERY harmful.

    The suggestion of catering to different "learning styles" is analogous to carrying a Swiss knife in a toolbox for all repair types: the results will not be very good, to say the least. I agree that learning styles should be treated as a "suitable tool for the purpose". One can't learn to manufacture a mechanical part solely from the book, the same way programming cannot be learned solely from observing the code. The main problem that needs to be tackled is the motivation; the biggest danger is to externalize the learning process as it impedes the motivation. One good example is a typical sports fan - visiting live games, watching broadcasts and recordings, subscribing to magazines, buying various tokens, etc., all at once, if possible. However, similar occurrences are rare in education. If modern students are successfully convinced that multidisciplinary approach to learning is the way to go, then the same should be done with the learning styles, as different techniques and sources also help develop a critical mind, which is essential to the process.

    How does it make sense to create redundant knowledge at the expense of versatility, since there is no time and/or money for both?

    @Richard - you said exactly what I was thinking, it is the (Y)outube generation that is driving this change/alternative. I see two main problems with these younger students: the inability to retain the knowledge due to the strong reliance on the online sources, and the time utilization to visual learning - we can read 4-5 times more in the same amount of time, therefore offering more perspectives through different reads. It is a societal issue that most of the students nowadays are encouraged to learn passively, on the go, along with listening to the music and texting. But then again, universities can't possibly compete with joint budgets of Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, etc. in advertizing what is "cool".


    Sasa Danilovic November 7, 2013 - 2:33pm

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