If you’re an aural learner, read this aloud to yourself

by Colby Cosh

A new study in the APS journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest [PDF] inquires into the scientific basis for one of the most influential fashions in current pedagogy: the idea that different students have different kinds of optimal “learning styles”. The number of “learning style” taxonomies being peddled by various authors and theorists is in the dozens. It’s a lucrative business, as Pashler et al. point out, and it has gotten a firm toehold in the public schools and education textbooks (and, he might have added, in homeschooling literature). One of the most popular theories is the “VARK” schema, which sorts the human species into visual, aural, “read/write”, and kinesthetic learners.

If you’re like me, you may have encountered this notion in the guise of somebody’s excuse for doing poorly, or for somebody else doing poorly, on a course or a test. I suspect that the younger you are, the more likely you are to have heard it. And I sometimes suspect, heaven forgive me, that the function of much educational research is to keep parents supplied with such excuses—to provide middle-class children with prefabricated “sick roles”, in the argot of sociology. But I digress.

It is obvious and empirically demonstrable that many students do possess specifiable permanent preferences for learning by means of one sensory mode or another. In practice, this is how most “learning styles” handbooks and articles recommend sorting students into style types: by asking ‘em what type they are. No teacher really has time to do the sorting by means of a validated test. With younger students, who have not yet learned their own preferred “modalities” through trial-and-error and introspection and (perhaps) plenty of frustration and difficulty, the educator may be left to use intuition and guesswork. Some feel confident in their judgment; some don’t.

The question Harold Pashler and his group set out to answer was whether there is any strong scientific evidence for “learning styles” at all. It’s not enough, they argue, to show that people have preferences. The relevant version of the “learning styles” hypothesis is that students will actually benefit from receiving instruction that matches their preferences—what the authors call the “meshing hypothesis”.

Confirming that hypothesis to a scientific standard, they suggest, would not be particularly difficult. It is child’s play to design a randomized, controlled experiment to test it: take two groups of learners sorted into “style” groups by whatever method you like, select a common learning task, have a randomly-chosen half of each group work on the task by their preferred/optimal means and the other half learn the “wrong way”, and test everybody. Bam. If you find a significant “crossover interaction”—instructional mode Q works best for the Q group, but X works best for the X group—the “meshing hypothesis” wins.

The punch line is that almost nobody has ever even tried anything of the sort. By this definition, the actual “scientific” literature on learning styles is virtually nonexistent, and most of what does exist found no crossover effect. There is, as yet, no good reason to think that some students are thwarted by being taught in the wrong style. Pashler et al. admit that this could easily still be the case: their review of the literature is not, as some have characterized it, a “debunking” or a “refutation”. It is merely an argument that an educational sub-industry has grown to very impressive size without any meaningful experimental warrant.

Some might react to the Pashler argument by proposing that the meshing hypothesis, even if the science behind it is weak, is just common sense. But “common sense” weighs equally strongly in defence of the possibility that teachers of all kinds might want to focus on matching instructional methods to the material being taught, rather than the student. It all depends on your a priori ideas about human beings—whether we are highly heterogenous when it comes to learning, or highly homogenous. That’s why we need experiments, as the authors of the paper argue:

Basic research on human learning and memory, especially research on human metacognition, much of it carried out in the last 20 years or so, has demonstrated that our intuitions and beliefs about how we learn are often wrong in serious ways. We do not, apparently, gain an understanding of the complexities of human learning and memory from the trials and errors of everyday living and learning. …This fact makes it clear that research—not intuition or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for upgrading teaching and learning. If education is to be transformed into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support. On the basis of our review, the belief that learning-style assessments are useful in educational contexts appears to be just that—a belief.

David Glenn of the Chronicle of Higher Education bounced the Pashler result off of other psychologists. Some argue that Pashler’s review of the literature might not have been deep enough, but at least one of the founding fathers of the “learning styles” field, David Kolb, agrees that matching instruction to the “style” of particular students is probably a waste of time. Interesting blog reactions are also available from education professor John Lloyd, psychology professor Richard Landers, and management professor Peter Smith. On a side note, Hal Pashler is also a co-author of the “Voodoo Correlations” paper that has recently caused a remarkable furor in neuroscience circles. But that’s a whole other kettle of herring…

If you’re an aural learner, read this aloud to yourself

  1. One very positive outcome of the discussions around `learning modalities', at least in physics at post-secondary level which I'm most familiar with, is that it has encouraged educators to re-think their approach and present the material a few different ways, roughly corresponding to (say) a few of the VARK categories. This sort of repetition-but-in-different-ways measurably does improve retention of the material for students; however whether this approach an unalloyed good or not depends on whether or not it's the best way for the educator to spend their time, or if there are still better ways of doing it. More research into these sorts of topics would be very welcome…

  2. Good! You help to slow down the criticism all to frequently seen under "learning styles." What is important to understand is, *who* are the naysayers? Are they educators? Parents who recognize learning differences in themselves and their children? Think critically. That's my NYear's revelation. Probe and don't underestimate how far naysayers may go. For a working model – let's continue to find a way to test MI control groups . . .

  3. Varied modality of presentation is definitely welcome in physics – I have a lot of trouble with material if there isn't the opportunity to read what's being taught, in addition to simply listening to the professor. Now, that probably has more to do with my poor attention span than any ingrained preference for learning style, but I've still found it remarkably helpful to have a written copy in addition to (or even instead of) a lecture.

    I think the real take-away from this theory is not for educators, but for students themselves. If a student feels they are better capable to learn from one style or another, they can adapt their study habits to take advantage of that.

    Anyway, I fully agree with Cosh's overriding point here, more rigor is needed on the subject. I feel that psychology still plays a little fast and loose with its adherence to the scientific method, but with reviews like Pashler's, improvement is definitely being made (albeit slowly).

  4. I probably tend to approach teaching too much as an art, and not enough as a science, but I'm nevertheless a bit uncomfortable with learning being too closely equated to consumption.

    I agree that "learning styles" is often abused by students or parents to ignore issues of work ethic, talent, and the like. But perhaps more concerning is that fixating on learning styles (and thus teaching styles) distracts us from the human element in teaching, and frames education as simply another product or message that only needs proper branding and flow charts to make it work.

    I'm not saying that teachers should be left alone to practice their black art as they see fit. And good teachers are always exploring new ways to keep their students engaged and successful. But teaching and learning are not analagous to buying a take-out lunch. And I worry that too much attention given to things like learning styles makes education sound like a simple matter of finding the right mix of condiments on the burger.

    • http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/12/09/who-we-are-as-learners/
      Hi Sean, how are you finite?

      I post this related link that demonstrates some of the politicization that attends the movements to singularize learning styles. We all learn using every style, and while a universal generalization such as that is perhaps as meaningless as rigid characterizations of discrete styles, it is the apology that should precede every sdissertation so as to mitigate political and institutional excesses related to the application of learning style knowledge.

  5. "If education is to be transformed into an evidence-based field,"

    I realize that I'm not really taking this quote in the context in which it was presented, but the "evidence" that a curriculum works used to be that it produced people that were actually numerate and literate. I have no idea how the methods being used today in public schools are justified, because its certainly not by the results.

  6. "And I sometimes suspect, heaven forgive me, that the function of much educational research is to keep parents supplied with such excuses—to provide middle-class children with prefabricated “sick roles”, in the argot of sociology."

    I know that you were digressing at the time, but if you only suspect this sometimes, what do you suspect at the other times (do you have some sort of ratio to offer?) and can you show me the results of your reproducible and peer-reviewable experiment that explains and supports your theories? Just so I can know how much stock I can reasonably put in this post.

  7. I'm not that young but I don't remember any teacher at any level of education being forced to adapt their teaching style to the students, or trying to impose a learning style on students. All I remember was teaching and learning tools, to be used or abused as one wishes.

    You might be on to something Cosh but whatever point you wish convey just gets lost in the right wing lunacy because you pair your inquiry with what sounds like another conspiracy of the education system to make us spend more tax dollars. Spoken like a childless, self-made, boudoir critic of everything outside his little capsule of loathing.

  8. That's a pretty broad generalization, don't you think, JimD? Things can seem pretty bleak sometimes, sure, but my son and his classmates can, by all indications, read and use numbers. They're in Grade 3 and they're getting better at it every day. I don't feel overly comfortable extrapolating beyond that, but I'm not sure I have to. I think the onus of proof that the majority of the people who emerge from the school system cannot read/write/use numbers falls on the man who levels the charge. I'd like a side of proof with that hyperbole.

  9. I don't suggest you put any stock in any part of this post, including the "and"s and the "the"s. I've been pretty generous with links to the study and to related material.

  10. "The punch line is that almost nobody has ever even tried anything of the sort. By this definition, the actual “scientific” literature on learning styles is virtually nonexistent, and most of what does exist found no crossover effect."

    I think you are right, because something like this is so difficult to measure and study.

    I think you have some good points. I agree that some people may use this sort of reasoning as an excuse for poor results.

    But I also think there is some truth to the matter as well. I work with lots of people who like to brainstorm, getting in a room and bouncing ideas of each other. I don't like to work this way. I like to take a proposal, mull it over in my head alone, and then come back with an opinion, I'm not fond of the ping-pong that goes on in brainstorm sessions. I can never work out all the ramifications of another person's opinion in the ten seconds you have to respond in a brainstorm session. But other people seem to like to work that way.

    So I do think people like to learn in different ways, to a degree, but it may simply be nothing more than preference.

  11. At least in Ontario, I think it's fair to say that our high schools place greater emphasis on things like 'effort,' and 'self-expression' than on raw research, writing and critical thinking skills – as compared to a few decades ago (I'm less familiar with how the math and science end of things are going). In combination with a society that devalues literacy and numeracy, it's fairly easy for some students to skate through those years with a sub-par education. (Probably not helped by a parenting culture that leans a bit hard toward rewarding everything kids do as special and worthy in its own right.)

    That said, the elementary curriculum my kids are getting seems far more advanced than I recall during my school days (I'm 40) .

    • I'm 28 and I've noticed that today's curriculum is at least year ahead as it was for my time. It also seem to depend on the subject. Math is one that's clearly getting pushed earlier and earlier while history is fading away from the core requirements. The change seems logical but it doesn't mean it's substantiated.

  12. You Need to Know that Natives learn informally and volunteer more.
    Krn Krsflsi

    • You seem to have nuggets of really interesting insight and then wrap them in a deep fried batter that obscures their original virtue.

  13. I think she has something of an unhealthy obsession with all things Maclean's – I seem to recall she had a blog dedicated to nothing but trashing everything they blogged and published.

  14. Sean,

    You're not wrong; if you hover over her "I WANT MY NAME BACK" tag, it takes you to her roundly ignored blog to that effect.

    But I have skimmed a few of her comments and if you strip away the weird non-sequiturs and factual errors, she sometimes has a point hidden in there somewhere.

  15. Imagine the effect such radical critical thinking might have on public policy. If rigorous empirical examination of most vice law regimes – pot, prostitution, gambling and the like – demonstrated that the most effective route to reducing such behavior and mitigating negative impacts is not to criminalize them, we woudl chage them, right? Oh, wait a minute, they have and it didn't. Shoot!

  16. I thought I knew that already, until you told me it was, old friend. Now, I'm not so sure.

  17. Sometimes I suspect that I don't disagree that you've been generous with links.

  18. Huh? What did you write? I was distracted by the pictures..

  19. Does the distinction between a "preference" and "empirically identifiable cognitive features" actually matter? If people have a preference for one learning style over another (even if it an irrational one) then it is going to be more or less pleasant for them to learn, depending upon how they are taught. The challenge is identifying which preferences are fundamental and real. For instance, Gardner's list is unparsimonious and includes some things that I would call subject preferences (eg. naturalistic learning). This is where the experiment the authors discuss would be useful.

    If real, learning styles are far more valuable than as an excuse for the failure of some students. They would enable us to sort students by learning style, and thus greatly enhance teaching. In particular, better understanding would help address students with learning disabilities. A learning disability does not mean somebody is stupid, it merely means there are some cognitive tasks that they are relatively much worse at. Usually there are coping mechanisms they can develop to get around those shortcomings. For instance, I know a guy (currently doing graduate work at an Ivy League university) who is unable to manipulate visual objects in his head. Instead, when he has to visualize, he imagines himself feeling an object.

  20. Also, you may want to take a look at the chapter entitled "Survey of Research on Learning Styles". They go through a large number of correlational and experimental attempts to understand learning styles (though not just VARK – they have 8 looking at perceptual impacts, which is essentially VARK). I kind of skimmed ahead to find the charts, if that tells you anything about my learning style (assuming such a thing exists). All 8 of the perceptual tests found statistically significant relationships between perceptual preference and achievement.

    http://www.marric.us/files/CSTA_learnjournal.pdf#

    It also looked at some other distinctions. For instance, high-achievers are much more likely to be morning people.
    In general, review articles may be more informative for laymen to go through, because they summarize a broad and conflicting literature. Just taking a single article risks misrepresenting reality.

    • Hosertohoosier: Interesting reference, but take a closer look at the article and the list of 8 studies. The article was coauthored by the late Rita Dunn, whose learning styles test is one of the most commercially successful. Presumably she had a large financial interest in the topic. About the 8 articles cited in the Fig 1 on p. 79 that so impressed you: From a quick glance at the reference list, it appears that none of them were published in refereed journals–they are unpublished PhD dissertations, the great majority from St. John's University (where Dr. Dunn taught). I would guess that most were done under Dr. Dunn's direct supervision.

      So what does this mean? Well… how would you feel about evidence for efficacy of a drug that came from unpublished studies done by the drug company itself?

      I imagine the critical article reviewed here covered the peer reviewed literature–not unpublished in-house work from people involved in selling the tests and/or their students. Also, it is not clear that any of the studies you mentioned even provide the sort of critical finding that the authors of the new study believed to be essential.

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