Do Learning Styles Matter?

Do Learning Styles Matter?

THE SOURCE: “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert A. Bjork, in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Dec. 2008.

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Audio, visual, textualmost people are willing and eager to identify themselves as a certain type of learner. And it follows pretty quickly that they learn better and faster when teachers approach a lesson in their “style.” Based on that logic, many school districts have poured money into training and materials to help teachers tailor their lessons to the various learning styles of their students. But haste makes waste, write Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego; Mark McDaniel of Washington University, St. Louis; Doug Rohrer of the University of South Florida; and Robert A. Bjork of the University of California, Los Angeles. There just isn’t sufficient evidence to support customizing education in this way.

An industry of expensive seminars and guidebooks has sprung up premised on the so-called meshing hypothesis—that instruction is best absorbed when it matches a learn er’s preferences. In order to justify this industry’s existence, a study would have to show that students, sorted by learning style, then randomly assigned to different instruction methods, performed better when they were instructed in the “correct” teaching style. Very few studies have attempted this, the authors report, and of those that did, several had results that flatly contradicted the meshing hypothesis. The one study Pashler and colleagues thought might support it had serious methodological flaws, including data scrubbed of “deviant scores.”

On the other hand, in what the authors deem “a particularly informative and well-designed study” of 175 participants, psychologists Laura J. Massa and Richard E. Mayer found “no tendency for better performance” among subjects who received information in their preferred format. Massa and Mayer concluded that their results gave zero support to “the idea that different instructional methods should be used” for different types of learners.

The appeal of learning styles isn’t hard to understand. The idea of finding out “what type of person one is” probably has some “eternal and deep appeal.” Parents love the idea that if their children aren’t doing well, it’s because they haven’t received the proper style of instruction. But appealing as it may be, it’s just not worth the cash until the evidence is there. Without firm support, the authors conclude, schools should not invest their limited resources in catering to stu­dents’ supposed learning styles.

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