A couple of decades ago it was inconceivable for educators to tailor their materials and teaching approach towards the individual student. The different learning styles as a concept started gaining pace ever since the term and idea behind it was first introduced in the mid 70’s.
We Learn Best in Different Ways
Today, it is only too obvious that we don’t all share the same learning mechanisms, and while it may be impractical to apply this to the everyday classroom environment, it has certainly influenced the direction, in which online learning is developing.
You don’t need to look further than yourself and your immediate circle of friends to spot the differences in your learning styles. While you may feel comfortable reading long pages of solid material, some of your friends may find it completely indigestible. While some people remember close to everything of what they hear, others’ attention wanders off as soon as they hear a narrator’s monotonous drone. While some need to isolate themselves in the deepest, darkest corner of the library or office to concentrate, others need to talk through new material with a partner or a group.
The 7 Basic Styles of Learning
Supporters of the learning styles theory have been able to isolate 7 main modes of learning that supposedly ease the instruction process for students if the right approach is applied.
1. Visual (Spatial) – learners prefer to use images and spatial orientation to acquire new material.
These people respond best to images, mind maps, flow charts and other methods for visualizing new concepts.
2. Aural (Auditory and Musical) – these people are positively affected by sounds and often resort to mnemonics or background music to retain new information.
3. Verbal (Linguistic) – students are strongly reliant on words and need to listen, speak and read to digest new material.
They benefit from recording notes and lectures for later listening, read aloud and put ideas into words.
4. Physical (Kinaesthetic) – the body, movements and tactile impressions work best for people with this learning style.
Physical activities don’t need to be limited to jumping and dancing, but also include drawing diagrams and writing down key information.
5. Solitary (Intrapersonal) – these learners perform better when they are left to their own devices when faced with new material.
They benefit from self-paced courses and are very focused on their internal feelings and personal associations.
6. Social (Interpersonal) – on the contrary, these people reach their peak performance in learning through group discussions, role plays and activities.
7. Logical (Mathematical) – using logical reasoning and drawing associations works best for these people.
They need to see the connections and dive deeper into the relationship between ideas.
Obviously, it is impossible to categorize one person as a strictly physical or social learner.
We definitely all share some degree of preference for how we are introduced new concepts and how we deal with retaining them.
Opposition to the Learning Styles Theory
Criticism of learning styles being the main obstacle to achieving better learning outcomes, however, is not scarce. Contemporary researchers agree that we don’t all learn in the same way, but at the same time maintain that our interests and preferences have more to do with how we retain new information than an inborn learning style.
For example, if a person enjoys the piano and is interested in developing his or her skills in this area, there is a higher chance that the person will learn more effectively than others who don’t share the interest. On the other hand, a student’s background and abilities are also a factor in achieving better results.
Critics point out that there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that we learn better through a single method and that matching a learning style of a student to the mode of instruction improves outcomes.
In any case, the buzz around learning styles has allowed e-learning course developers to expand their approach to teaching to incorporate more instructional techniques. In the online environment it is much easier to include visual, aural or logical elements to course materials, as well as encourage both solitary and group work.
True or not, the idea that we have different learning styles may not have turned course instruction on its head, but has certainly raised the issue that more than a few teaching modes should be explored.
This comes in handy when designing a new e-learning program by bringing diversity and versatility to teaching techniques and creating richer, more memorable learning experiences.
What do you think? Do you have your own learning style? What strategies work best for you in understanding and remembering new information?
The article received a lot of comments on social media and on our blog, countering some arguments, so we decided to do an update on the blog post:
I wouldn’t take what a cognitive neuroscientist has to say about learning styles as the gospel. Especially since it’s an article in a popular (not scientific) magazine, and a very one-sided one at that. From 40+ years of scholarly studies on learning styles, he only links to a few papers that counter the idea.
First of all,there are several approaches and disciplines that contribute to learning science, and it’s reductionistic to think that neuroscience is the be all end all in our understanding of the learning process (though, of course, many neuroscientists do).
A complex psychological, social and cultural phenomenon such as learning is not easily reduced to one discipline, however fashionable it might be.
Second, I wouldn’t take recent papers at face value either. Papers in peer reviewed journals are a dime-a-dozen. Most of them, in thorough meta-studies have been found to be non-reproducible and, well, plain wrong. Besides, for each peer reviewed paper there’s one or several peer reviewed papers that attack it.
Only after a subject has been studied for a while, several studies have been made pro and against, and the dust has settled down, we can have an understanding of a certain subject that we can depend upon.
Else we’ll be like like popular science outlets, which come up every week with alternating “X is good for you”, “X is bad for you” headlines, based on some recently published paper or another (this is especially common with medicine / nutrition research).
The author is also writing a book titled “Great Myths of the Brain”. I find this genre of “myth-busting” popular science books doing more harm than good. For obvious and agreed upon myths they are OK (e.g. about “only using 10% of our brain”, or stuff like creationism).
But for controversial topics, with scientists on both sides of the debate those books should not take one side and label the other as “myth” based on their authors prejudices. It would be like a neo-liberal economist labelling Keynesian economics a “myth”. That’s for the scientific consensus to decide.
With all that said, and with all the caveats about recent(ish) scientific papers that we mentioned, here is a recent study that goes against the conclusions of the papers in the article, finding measurable (via fMRI) evidence for learning styles:
And here’s a paper from a behavioral scientist (and the project leader of the MINT learning center at the ETH Zurich, Institute for Behavioral Sciences), regarding neuroscience and pedagogy:
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