The problem with learning styles

Learning styles can be used as an excuse: ‘I didn’t learn well because the teacher didn’t teach in my preferred learning style’. That type of thinking not only turns learners into passive receptacles of knowledge, it places all the responsibility for learning on the teacher. It’s also wrong.

The word ‘preferred’ in the term ‘preferred learning style’ is why it’s wrong. Just because we prefer to learn in one way over another, for example thorough thinking or through doing, doesn’t mean that’s the only way we can learn.

Writing in the Journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Harold Pashler from the University of California and colleagues conducted a meta study (i.e. they reviewed a large body of research into learning styles, selected the most rigorous studies, and compared their findings) to find out whether learning styes exist and make a difference to learning.

They found that yes, indeed, people have preferences concerning how they like information presented to them. They also found that people have different thinking styles which makes them better at processing some types of information than others; for instance, some people get more information from pictures and others from the written word.

But do people actually learn better when instructional methods mesh with their preferred learning and thinking style? Apparently not. What does help people learn is their critical thinking skills, their study skills and their belief that they can learn the material.

(You can find out more about learning styles in Chapter 26, pages 854 857 and about study skills in earlier blogs, e.g. ‘How to make the most of learning’ posted 8 Feb 2013.)

So know what your preferred learning style is, by all means, and try to accommodate it when you can. But spend more time learning how to learn.

Discussion questions

Are you learning as effectively as you can? What study techniques do you use?