The Chronicle of Higher Ed. reported yesterday on new research suggesting that matching one's teaching style to students' learning style doesn't help them learn better. Most, if not all of us who teach, have been told about the importance of recognizing that our students have different learning styles (i.e. visual, kinestic, aural, etc.) and the importance of the teacher adopting congruent teaching techniques in order to reach all of our students. And I'm also guessing that just about everyone, including myself, has taken that advice at face value because it seems so self-evident there was never a reason to question it.
But now some researchers have published a paper suggesting that although each of us has a different learning style, there is no empirical evidence to support the assumption that students learn best when their teacher tries to match those individual styles. As expected, the paper has drawn critics who argue that the researchers have missed, or failed to take into account, several important papers on the importance of matching teaching style to learning style. Among them is
David A. Kolb, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, who began to study learning styles in the late 1960s. In an interview, Mr. Kolb agrees with Mr. Sternberg that Mr. Pashler's review of the literature seems too thin.
But Mr. Kolb also says that the paper's bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students' particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full "learning cycle," without regard to their students' particular styles.)
"Matching is not a particularly good idea," Mr. Kolb says. "The paper correctly mentions the practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history."
OK, so does this mean the end of training teachers to recognize and play to the different learning styles of their students? Maybe not according to one source quoted in the CHE article:
If the matching hypothesis is not well supported, then why do so many learning-styles studies show positive effects? Hundreds of studies that do not meet Mr. Pashler's stringent criteria for experimental design suggest—at least loosely—that students do better when instructors are trained in learning-styles theory.
One possibility is that the mere act of learning about learning styles prompts teachers to pay more attention to the kinds of instruction they are delivering. An instructor who attends a learning-styles seminar might start to offer a broader mixture of lectures, discussions, and laboratory work—and that variety of instruction might turn out to be better for all students, irrespective of any "matching."
"Even though the learning-style idea might not work," says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, "it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson."
In other words, learning-styles seminars might be effective, but not for the reasons that their designers believe.
While this is an important paper for classroom teachers to read, a consensus won't begin to form around the results until they are repeated by other researchers. Read the entire CHE article here.