Evidence Soup
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Thursday, 30 September 2010

More evidence that learning style theories aren't backed by empirical evidence.

Cathy Moore has lots of good ideas about instructional design, and recently wrote a nice post about the evidence on learning styles. In Learning styles: Worth our time? she recaps two in-depth reviews, both concluding that all the sound and fury might signifiy nothing (via @OliviaMitchell and @catmoore #opw on Twitter).

The evidence is weak, to put it mildly. Cathy explains that four cognitive psychologists concluded: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” This is from Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence [pdf], an examination of learning style research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

That review asked questions like "What evidence is necessary to validate interventions based on learning styles?" One of their findings was that available studies are weak: "Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.” p. 105. (Apparently "meshing" means changing your teaching style to accomodate a learning style.)

Is it all about the Benjamins? Another reason to be skeptical is the strong commercial motivation to promote a learning-style concept and present it as a pressing need: Take a look at the list of competing 'inventories' and other assessment tools at the end of this post.

And there's more. Cathy also looked at conclusions from Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review [free pdf download]. This impressive and exhaustive look at learning and teaching styles asked questions like "What empirical evidence is there that models of learning styles have an impact on students’ learning?" And as Cathy explains, this massive study found "no clear evidence supporting any of the many theories about learning styles. They fault weak methodology and the commercial nature of much of the research."

From Learning Styles and Pedagogy: "One characteristic of most of the advice offered to practitioners is that it consists of logical deductions from the various theories of learning style rather than conclusions drawn from the findings of empirical research.... The one implication for practice which is repeated throughout the literature on learning styles is that it is the responsibility of teachers, tutors and managers to adapt their teaching style to accommodate the learning style of their students or staff members." p. 134.

At any rate, it would be impractical to do anything about it. More from Learning Styles and Pedagogy: "But such an unqualified exhortation is both unhelpful and unrealistic, because it could be interpreted as meaning that the teacher/tutor/manager is obliged to respond appropriately to visual and verbal learners (and perhaps haptic learners also); to inductive and deductive, reflective and active, sequential and global, conceptual and concrete learners; and to those who like working in groups as well as those who prefer learning individually. Despite the strong convictions with which these ideas are promoted, we failed to find a substantial body of empirical evidence that such strategies have been tried and found successful. Advice of this type strikes practitioners as unworkable and so it tends to remain untested."

Wow. I hadn't realized how many learning style models and assessment instruments were out there. Just browsing this list (from Learning Styles and Pedagogy) makes me doubtful there could ever be agreement on this issue, and undermines the belief that learning styles - and methods for accomodating them - could ever be endorsed empirically.

  • Gregorc’s Mind Styles Model and Style Delineator (GSD)
  • Dunn and Dunn’s model and instruments of learning styles
  • Kogan’s classification of learning styles
  • Riding’s Cognitive Styles Analysis (CSA)
  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI); the 16 MBTI personality types
  • Apter’s Motivational Style Profile (MSP)
  • Jackson’s Learning Styles Profiler (LSP)
  • Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI)
  • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ)
  • ‘Whole brain’ learning and design considerations

Cathy's take on this is "that instead of adapting instruction to one of the gajillions of learning style theories, we should build learners’ metacognitive skills and use formative assessment."

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