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What's the Deal with Learning Styles?

By Kent Darr

If you’ve taught at all in the last 30 years, you’ve probably heard some variation of the phrase, “I can’t learn like that,” or “I learn best through videos”, and you have scrambled to locate - or even create - multimedia materials to teach your students according to their preferred or dominant learning style. But what if I told you that learning styles are the teaching equivalent of urban legends? By tempering some of the sensationalism and mixing it with common sense, students are more than willing to accept that they can learn best from a variety of approaches to presentation.

So how did learning styles come to have such a strong grip on our students’ perceptions of their learning abilities? As a formal approach to learning, the concept of learning styles began to be widely adopted in the early ’90s founded on the idea that maximizing the individual’s learning potential depended on providing them with media or activities that best matched their “dominant” learning style. According to the most popular models, VAK and VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic), this meant that teachers needed to have several iterations of the same content readily available for students to utilize based on their expressed preferences. These preferences were often discovered after students completed surveys that helped them to reflect on their learning practices and identify their preferred methods.

WARK Questionnaire

Recently though, studies have found that accounting for learning styles as envisioned in the VARK survey may not be the skeleton key of learning that many originally assumed it would be. Rather, the surveys and the widespread adoption of learning-style language inadvertently snatched the students’ imaginations, leading them to underestimate their own abilities to learn from any type of materials that they didn’t self-select, and worse, gave them a justification for it. So, much like any well-intentioned experiment, pedagogically reasonable requests for videos or music breaks in class eventually mutated into the deceptively simple rebuffs, “I can’t learn from reading,” or, “I can only learn while listening to music.” 

But if learning styles, with all of their hype and propaganda, aren’t actually effective, what can we do in our classrooms to assure that our students are reaching their full potential as learners? First, we can design courses that utilize a mixture of course materials that are appropriate to the learning goals. For example, readings can detail the principles and structures governing a practice while videos and audio may work best for communicating scenarios and stories. Similarly, visuals can work well as guides while activities can engage the students kinesthetically to apply the content. Second, we can build assessments that emphasize the skills that the students will use in the workplace. This will likely involve reading information and interpreting data while creating deliverables like reports, products, videos, or podcasts - all of which a traditional use of learning styles might undermine by overemphasizing a learner’s reliance on one mode of learning. Finally, we can ground our course design and intervention efforts in Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences which expands upon the VARKs model of human intelligence and highlights the capacity for dynamic learning that every human has regardless of their inherent strengths and weaknesses. 

So, what’s the deal with learning styles? Like urban legends or viral memes, they paint a simplistic view of learners’ abilities to capture our attention and promise us a simple solution to a complex problem. As academics, we should be especially aware of the need for nuance, and resist the allure of appealing to learning styles wherever we may encounter them. Instead, we should stress - to ourselves and our students - a truly optimistic learning model which affirms the potential of each learner. In doing so, we are sure to generate more robust and authentically good outcomes that create resilient learners along the way.

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