Decades of research has demonstrated that identities, prior learning experiences, and personal goals inform students’ engagement in college classrooms, and many instructors seek strategies for best supporting these individual circumstances. One popular method for acknowledging students’ diverse needs, however, is not effective: attempting to match learning activities to students’ perceived “learning styles.”

Research has shown that there is no compelling correlation between self-identified learning styles, teaching methods utilized, and positive or negative outcomes (Knoll et al., 2017; Rohrer & Pashler, 2012). In this article, Center for Teaching staff first outline some of that research debunking the idea of focusing activities on students’ preferred learning styles and then suggest some alternative, evidence-based methods for facilitating the success of students from all backgrounds.

Learning styles refer to students’ preferences in processing information (Willingham et al., 2015). A common conception of learning styles uses descriptors like “auditory,” “visual,” or “kinesthetic” to characterize the student’s preferred mode of receiving information (Reiner & Willingham, 2010).

Learning styles have been explained in various ways. Some theories attribute learning preferences to diverse social experiences; others focus on different steps in the processes of learning; others attempt to name as many unique categories as possible (Haswell, 2017). They have also been attributed to cognitive and brain-based learning science.

However, research shows that the concept of fixed learning styles is not supported by consistent theoretical or experimental evidence in any iteration (Garner, 2000; Platsidou & Metallidou, 2008; Betts et al., 2019) and can make teaching more difficult. Newton and Miah (2017) describe a potential risk in relying on teaching through learning styles as “wasting resources on an ineffective method” (p. 2). Reiner and Willingham (2010) point out that relying on learning styles disregards the role of content in choosing classroom activities.

Encouraging students to embrace a learning style might also hinder deeper reflection on learning. Believing they are “visual” or “auditory” learners, for example, students may dismiss the value of engaging in a wide array of activities, particularly if they are challenging, leading them to miss learning opportunities (Kirschner, 2017).

Instructors and students may be attracted to learning styles because of a commitment to inclusion and learning; these motivations are valuable and might be better served through the following evidence-based strategies:

Nurturing Student Metacognition: Learning about Learning

If an activity or concept is difficult to grasp, blaming that difficulty on a learning style mismatch stunts growth toward a goal. Ample evidence supports the value of asking students to reflect on their progress. This reflection can improve students’ outcomes through nurturing metacognitive awareness about study habits and performance (Ambrose et al., 2010). When we ask students to think about their own learning, including acknowledging how their effort contributes to success, they are likely to develop more effective practices for their next course.

Here are some strategies to foster students’ metacognitive awareness:

  • Using reflection activities after completing some aspect of the course. Use prompts and/or questions to help students consider their mastery of a concept:
    • What did you already know about the topic?
    • What did you learn about the topic?
    • What is evidence (an example) of what you learned?
    • What do you still wonder about?
  • Using prompts and questions for reflection that help students think about learning processes beyond the idea of “styles.”
    • At what moment were you most engaged/not engaged as a learner? (Adapted from Brookfield, 2011)
    • What helps you to learn better?
    • What is obstructing your learning?
    • What could you do to support yourself in learning?

Recognizing Individual Student Needs

It is important to acknowledge and honor the different perspectives students bring based on their backgrounds and interests. Creating inclusive spaces requires instructors to provide equal access to learning. However, this does not mean inviting students to learn only in the ways that feel easiest to them. Rather, we can consider some of the following strategies:

  • Designing classes to be accessible to all individuals.
  • Creating welcoming syllabi through:
    • A focus on students’ success. For example, consider renaming “course policies” to “how to be successful in this course.”
    • A reach-out statement.
    • An inclusive tone that clearly communicates expectations, reiterates students’ ability to meet them, and highlights resources to support their learning.
  • Being transparent about learning goals and how to meet them and creating transparent learning materials (check out a resource about transparent teaching).
  • Being flexible when considering due dates, grading policies, and the evaluation of broad categories like “participation.”
  • Creating and upholding community agreements for classroom interaction.
  • Encouraging students to make personal connections to course material.

Reinforcing Material in Many Ways

Research suggests that while learning in one way is not helpful, presenting material in several ways is beneficial (Mayer, 2003). Below are some evidence-based strategies to support students’ learning process with this goal in mind:

  • Reinforcing course concepts and building on prior learning using a variety of activities to provide practice using novel information.
  • Providing students with the chance for repeated practice and rehearsal of learned material.
  • Facilitating group and individual learning activities, such as concept maps, where students can draw, reflect on, and discuss different topics.

Instructors can support students’ individual needs in their classrooms by using strategies that help students think beyond a particular style and reflect on the process of learning. Neither neurological nor pedagogical studies have supported the efficacy of teaching through targeted learning styles in to improve student outcomes. When students participate primarily in activities in which they feel most comfortable or are sure they will excel, they miss out on chances to be challenged and grow. We encourage you to equip students with choices in their learning and to provide material in multiple formats rather than determining how students fit into fixed learning styles that are not supported by evidence.

Reach out to the Center for Teaching at teaching@uiowa.edu to set up a consultation, ask a question, or share strategies you are using in your teaching. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

References

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Betts, K., Miller, M., Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Shewokis, P. A., Anderson, A., Borja, C.,  Galoyan, T., Delaney, B., Eigenauer, J. D., & Dekker, S. (2019). International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Online Learning Consortium. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/international-report-neuromyth...

Brookfield, S. D. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. John Wiley & Sons.

Garner, I. (2000). Problems and inconsistencies with Kolb’s learning styles. Educational Psychology, 20(3), 341–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/713663745

Haswell, J. (2017). A close look at learning styles. Honors Senior Capstone Projects. https://scholarworks.merrimack.edu/honors_capstones/23

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006

Knoll, A. R., Otani, H., Skeel, R. L., & Van Horn, K. R. (2017). Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. British Journal of Psychology, 108(3), 544–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12214

Mayer, R. E. (2003). The promise of multimedia learning: Using the same instructional design methods across different media. Learning and Instruction, 13(2), 125–139. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0959-4752(02)00016-6

Newton, P. M., & Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-based higher education—Is the learning styles ‘myth’ important? Frontiers in Psychology, 8, article 444. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00444

Platsidou, M., & Metallidou, P. (2008). Validity and reliability issues of two learning style inventories in a Greek sample: Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory and Felder & Soloman’s Index of Learning Styles. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(3), 324–335.

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2010.503139

Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46(7), 634–635. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315589505