For as long as formal education has been part of the human experience, people have contemplated the question of how we learn. What is the learning process — how does knowledge enter our brains and become assimilated in a usable way? The seminal ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle postulated in The Nicomachean Ethics:
“[T]he things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them… we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
In other words, to Aristotle, all learning was experiential.
Modern scholars believe there’s more to it than that. They have come up with the concept of “learning styles” to illustrate the many ways in which understanding takes place.
What’s your learning style? Thanks to the Internet, you can take a “learning styles” test online that claims to tell you how you learn best. But are these tests accurate? Are they useful? If the answer to either of these questions is no, it’s possible that the educators who create the quizzes are actually doing more harm than good.
So, what is a learning style? In the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, Frank Romanelli, Eleanora Bird and Melody Ryan write:
“A benchmark definition of learning styles is characteristic cognitive, effective, and psychosocial behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment.”
Different theorists identify a whole host of learning styles, but regardless of how they slice the pie, their lists usual boil down to three main types: visual, audio, and some sort of hands-on learning experience, often labeled tactile or kinesthetic (if you prefer, you can call it Aristotelian!).
According to Susan Kruger with StudySkills.com, visual learners do best with materials that are written out or are presented in pictures or diagrams. If you’re a visual learner, you might include drawings in your class notes and sit in the front row so you can get a clear view of the speaker in order to pick up cues from facial expressions and body language. You may benefit from color-coding your notes; when stumped, closing your eyes and visualizing what you are supposed to remember can produce a solution.
EducationPlanner.org defines the auditory learning style as learning by listening. If you’re an auditory learner, written directions might look to you as though they are written in a foreign language, while hearing someone give them is music to your ears. Podcasts and audiobooks are essential study aids for you. You benefit from reading your assignments aloud and from having someone read test questions to you. You enjoy lecture classes (you may be surprised to learn that that is not a universal sentiment!).
According to Grace Fleming with ThoughtCo.com, tactile or kinesthetic learners figure things out by getting out there and doing an activity, not by sitting on the sidelines. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, science and math laboratories are your friend; class exercises help as well. Even when studying, you’re probably doing something, like listening to music or having the ballgame on TV “for background noise.” Building models, engaging in role-playing, taking copious amounts of notes, and “talking with your hands” are hallmarks of the tactile learner.
Which one are you? There’s a simple way to find out…well, maybe it’s simple. There are a host of online tests that purport to tell you what your learning style is. Most of their questions are easy to answer, dealing with scenarios from everyday lives, but are they accurate, or useful?
Intrigued by the concept of learning styles, I set out to find my own. I took three different online tests (from EducationPlanner.org, VARK, and How-To-Study.com) and got three different learning styles. What gives? How is that possible?
It’s important to look closely at the questions. One might ask how you prefer to get directions while driving: do you want to be told where to go, do you prefer a map, or do you just want to figure it out on your own? Another will ask how you prefer to learn in class: listening to the professor, taking notes or doing an in-class activity. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who prefers the laboratory to the traditional lecture; however, you may also prefer listening to a novel on an audiobook to reading it.
In other words, what these short questionnaires may actually reveal is that you don’t prefer learning the same way in every single instance. You are a complicated person whose preferences depend on context: they are not uniform and inalterable. Maybe you like interactive websites, yet prefer a written report from your doctor telling you what’s wrong instead of seeing it on an x-ray. You want a tour guide to verbally describe tomorrow’s exciting agenda instead of acting it out for you or giving you a printout of the information. You are, in short, a tactile, auditory, and visual learner. It just depends on the circumstances.
An article in the ELT Journal concurs that learning styles are hardly set in stone:
“[A]lthough individuals may have some strong style preferences and tendencies, learning styles are not fixed modes of behavior, and, based on different situations and tasks, styles can be extended and modified.”
Here’s where the danger lies with the “learning style” craze. If a test tells you that you’re a visual learner, you may try to find a way to learn everything visually. You’ll insist on a teacher who relies primarily on visual cues, regardless of whether that person is otherwise a capable teacher.
Based on surveys, teachers reportedly believe that students should be taught to their individual learning styles, but in reality, few teachers actually practice this. One reason why: it would be a logistical nightmare, teaching the same lesson three different ways to one class.
One solution might be to match students and teachers according to learning style. The complications of this solution are enormous, and so far there is little data to support such a radical change. Also, do we really want to reorganize the classroom to zero in on a single learning style? Even if there is some net gain in learning and retention, what about the attendant regression in those skills that will be less and less used as a result? In a classroom tailored to auditory teachers and learners, will the students already-lesser visual and tactile skills regress further? Also: will students grow bored in a less varied learning environment?
A system in which classrooms are organized by learning styles could lead to pigeonholing of learners according to invalid criteria. For example, a visual learner may be dissuaded from pursuing subjects that do not match her diagnosed learning style (e.g., learning music), and/or may become overconfident in her ability to master subjects perceived as matching her learning style. Philip M. Newton and Mahallad Micah identify other potential pitfalls in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:
“[W]asting resources on an ineffective method, undermining the credibility of education research/practice, and the creation of unrealistic expectations of teachers by students.”
Moreover, what “learning styles” may be revealing is “learning preferences” and not “learning abilities.”
As Olga Khazan pointed out in The Atlantic, “the British Journal of Psychology found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the ‘learning style’ meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.”
In other words, it’s more accurate to speak of a preferred learning style.
The most useful result I got from the online tests was from EducationPlanner.org, which broke down the results by percentages. Rather than declare “You have a tactile learning style,” it disaggregated my data, showing that a little more than half the time, I respond best to the hands-on approach, while my auditory and visual percentages were right around 25 percent each.
Given those results, imagine if I only went tactile when it came to picking a style and a teacher. I would be ignoring my other skills and missing out on a chance to learn in different ways. Use a learning style test that incorporates this approach rather than one that concludes that you only have one way to learn.
I learned something else about learning styles by asking my students. After we played an exciting in-class game with a political puzzle on gerrymandering, I asked them: “Which method do you prefer for learning the material?” I gave them all the options: lecture, discussion, movies, games, and other class activities. To my surprise, the most popular answer was that the students wanted a mix of them all.
None of these students is an expert in education theory. Yet most are smart enough to know how they like to learn the material. “Variety’s the very spice of life,” the English poet Will Cowper famously wrote in “The Task”. Students don’t like repetitive routines. To keep their attention, you need to vary your presentation.
And that’s the best way to utilize a learning style.
Others have reached a similar conclusion. As reported in _The Journal for Clinical and Diagnostic Research, a study of medical students in a Middle Eastern country revealed that the majority of students preferred learning with multiple learning styles, not just one style.
If you plan to pursue a master’s degree in teaching, it will be helpful to learn about the different learning styles. But get in a program where the professors are going to understand the benefits of knowing the different learning styles as well as the most effective way to teach them, rather than becoming a blind supporter of learning styles or a full-fledged critic of them. Be sure you understand both sides of this debate.
This means discovering how to teach all three learning styles, helping your own students in the classroom increase their skills in all three areas while keeping the class interesting. Smart instructors will know to divide up the material, not the class, with lesson plans that train the trainees to boost all three learning styles.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.
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