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Teaching to the learning styles of multi-modal learners…a big waste of time?

According to a study commissioned by Psychological Science in the Public Interest titled “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” a recent review of existing research asserts that scientists have failed to show conclusively that students learn better when they are taught according to their preferred modality. The researchers claim that in dozens of studies reporting the success of teaching to different learning styles there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support such claims.

They state that in order to prove that student success depends on learning style specific opportunities, a very specific type of study needs to take place and very specific data needs to be collected. For most of the studies out there, this data or setup did not exist. For those that did, the results “flatly contradict the learning-style theory.” Of course more studies are recommended.

So what does this mean for best practices 30 years or so after the development of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory? What about the learning style inventories that have been conducted since the 1970’s? Should we just ignore them? Teachers at all levels, who have taught in the last 20 years have been encouraged to vary their delivery techniques and assessment methods to include multi-modal techniques to address the needs of all learners. Are we all wrong (as teachers, instructors, and professors)?

A common idea that is asserted over and over is that good teaching is just good teaching and we know it when we see it. It doesn’t matter if that teaching takes place in a brick and mortar classroom or in a fully online course. Instructors, students and administrators know who the good teachers are, seek out their courses, and succeed in their classes. Is that because they vary their delivery methods to address the needs of multi-modal learners? According to this recent study the answer is no.

Looking back on my learning experiences, when I think about my best teachers in life, they were lecturers or worksheet givers. But, if I’m an auditory learner, that may be the method that appeals to me most.

Where does this leave us? I think the article in and of itself starts many different conversations. Time and future research will tell. For now, I think we need to focus on the good teachers that we all know and try to do a little bit of what they are doing. If we do that, then all of us instructors out there are doing the best thing for our students multi-modally or otherwise.

- Pamela Kachka, M.A.Ed. –
Academic Trainer & Consultant

Stansbury, Meris. (2010, February). Learning-style research under fire. eSchool News, 1, 36.

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Being a teacher of pre-service teachers, we are encouraged to teach to the different learning styles. I try to accomplish this in my courses. However, that is not always possible. I believe teaching to different styles is difficult when teaching some subjects, such as computers.

    My husband who was a very traditional teacher taught at a local Christian high school. He gave a quiz just about every day, which encouraged the students to read the material. He was one of the best loved teachers in the school. That was because he showed a genuine interest in his students and believed that all could succeed in life. The students respected him for that.

  2. Wanda makes a great point. When students are motivated and feel encouraged they tend to work harder regardless of their learning style. However, we can not dismiss the fact that we are all different and by our sheer design we do not process information the same way.

    I’m a professional student and after over 10 years of higher education I can say authoritatively that I am without a doubt a tactical and visual learner. I have taken both traditional and online courses and regardless of the modality I realize that I am able to synthesize information better when I see it and experience it hands on. During my online courses I was not able to focus while just listening to the facilitator during recordings or teleconferences unless I was writing everything that was said.

    In order for a student to be successful instructors need to understand how students process information. It is difficult to do that with every subject but I have had the privilege of being in class with some of the best facilitators and they manage to accommodate all learning styles so I have a difficult time believing in this study or giving it any weight.

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