Learning Styles: A Hoax?

Have you ever heard a student say something like, “oh I’m a visual learner, I need to see information in pictures to understand it”? Well they are talking about learning types, a relatively challenged theory of individual learning strengths. You can take the VARK questionnaire to identify your own preferred learning style. According to VARK learners can be identified as either visual, aural, read/write, or kinesthetic. Furthermore, according to VARK some students may identify as multimodal learners, meaning they have strengths in multiple learning types.

The false instructional design assumptions

According to the “matching hypothesis” learners who are exposed to information in their preferred mode will perform better than if they received the same information in another mode. Beware, there is no research supporting this theory, in fact many leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists refute the theory. Professor Daniel Willingham in the department of Psychology at the University of Virginia states that learners can store memories in any of the three formats (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) and people have varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses in their ability to use each mode. However, when learners are only exposed to their particular mode and then tested on the information, they do not perform better than if they had used an alternative mode. In addition, a recent study by Cisco Systems debunks the “cone of learning hypothesis” that posits, learners preform better when they are presented with material in multimodal form. According to the study learners retain more information when the information is presented in verbal or textual form and supplemented with visual elements.

Enhancing learning through self-understanding

Do not get derailed by the “matching hypothesis” or the “cone of learning.” I agree with Willingham’s statement that as instructors we do not need to design and teach to each particular students single individual learning strengths. That said, learning types can help us better understand the learner we interact with and ourselves. As an instructor the key is to help learners become aware of their particular strengths and weaknesses and become comfortable self-directed learners. Helping students create individual learning plans that cater to their particular strengths and challenges. This will allow them to take charge of their learning, and in effect they may become more motivated and engaged.

Instructional design in the learning strength diverse classroom

Using Bloom’s taxonomy, instructors can design appropriate learning activities that engage the learner using the appropriate use of multimodal instruction. According to the Cisco study, lower level learning activities, such are remembering, may be served best without the use of interaction while those that require higher forms of critical engagement may benefit from interactivity. Instructional designers can support student success through the careful construction of student learning outcomes designed around Bloom’s taxonomy and presented in the appropriate modality for the particular level of learning.

Students are still the focus of our instruction, and the manner in which we design learning and assessment activities should be constructed around the utmost groundbreaking research on theories of teaching and learning.