Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Debunking the Learning Styles Myth

As you may know, I've been on a focused mission to better understand so-called learning styles and their place -- or not -- in e-Learning. Over the past week, I've been seriously reviewing my own outdated assumptions (go here and here for more on that).

Came across this post on Guy Wallace's Pursing Performance Blog, Debunking the Myth -- There Is No Such Thing as "Learning Styles". I take it that Guy is not a fan of learning styles.

Guy includes the text of a 2001 article by Sigmund Tobias of Fordham University. Tobias states:

Some adaptations to learning styles may lead instructional developers to teach concepts using multiple illustrations. In such practices, the instructional material may illustrate concepts, presumably the complex ones, in different ways, leading learners to form multiple representations. The designer may assume that the multiple illustrations work because learners choose the representation that is most congruent to their learning styles. It is probably more accurate that such instruction is effective because the multiple illustrations induce learners to devote more time to these concepts.

There's an important distinction to make between "learning style" and "instructional method."

Thoughts? Comments? Talk amongst yourselves....

If you're interested in learning more about learning styles, check out these posts: Learning Styles as Fortune Telling and Don't Be a Tyrant!


jmarrapodi said...

I think the problem here is not with learning styles, but with the attempt to match the teaching to a particular style.

A key discovery most people make when learning about styles, whether it's learning styles, DISC or MBTI, is that people may be different from they way they are in the way they take in and process information. There are generally many ah-ha moments as people understand the why of the rationale folks do things so differently from the way they do.

A great example: I will not learn as well if you give me page after page of text with zillions of details. They bore me to tears. I prefer to get the big picture view first, and often a diagram or metaphor will do that for me.

Take learning a piece of software. There are people who prefer to dive in, people who prefer to be shown step by step, and people who like to figure things out from a manual. If you've ever taught a software class, you know you will have explorers in your class who will wander off the track being presented in class following the "I wonder what happens if you do x" train of thought then get lost from where you are going. The rest of the class tracks along with you. Clearly you have different styles represented here.

There's considerable overlap with the MBTI and learning styles. MBTI is validated in many ways since the 40s, though it comes under fire these days because of the pool it was validated on, and I acknowledge that. Studies are being undertaken to validate it on broader populations. That said, there are tremendous implications with these styles and learning. Learning styles and MBTI are often originated from the same thinking: Carl Jung's psychology, which is why people often wind up in the same quadrant, whether it's Gregoric, Kolb or MBTI they are taking. I still see the clear demarcations of the E/I, N/S, F/T and J/P dichotomies as I work with people.

I taught a workshop to Adult Basic Education teachers this month. These are people attempting to teach reading to adults who didn't get it in school for whatever reason. Clearly these students need a different style in the way they are learning to read than is typical for most children. The research connecting MBTI and low literacy learners is limited, but studies continue to point to the over abundance of S (sensing) vs N (Intuitive) learners, rising above the 75/25 split in the general population. They focus on the details, often missing the big picture that the N learner quickly grasps in reading a passage, because of their internal wiring. Studies contnue to show that IN learners score highest on reading comprehension tests. Why? They process information internally and intuitively making connections. The ES learner, which is where most challenged learners fall, need things spelled out and the ability to talk things out loud to think about them. We test people in a way that some styles succeed much more readily than the challenged ES learner would.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is still vailidity in the concepts of learning styles. It's one way of sorting things. When I present the concept, I talk about sorting a mug full of pens and pencils. You can sort it pens, markers, pencils. You can sort it red, black, blue and other. You can sort it thick, thin. You can sort it smells and non-smells. Caps and capless. Regardless, you're still working with the same set of pens, and the fat red marker has individual attributes, but some commonalities with markers, red and fat items. Learning styles just allow us to focus on meeting the needs, realizing that if we are a fine-line blue pen, we may have to present something in a way that the red pen can better relate to rather that continuing to use our blueness to express the idea. They may not get it, even if we turn blue in the face, yet a purple pencil, with some blue and some red attributes can explain it in a way that can be understood and serve as a bridge.

Learning style concepts allow us as teachers to play the violin on more than one string, but we have to work harder at it to accomplish the goal.

Jean Marrapodi

Cammy Bean said...


You make some great points about learning styles. I'm interested in your background -- it sounds like your experience is in the classroom. What's your take as far as e-Learning goes with learning styles?

I've done classroom teaching as well, and of course I've found it's good to keep different styles in mind. I'm definitely not saying to throw out the baby or the bathwater here.

When teaching in a face-to-face environment, it's all about style, in some ways. How your students connect with you and how they connect with the material.

I'm coming at it more from the e-Learning perspective. If you're trying to design courseware for a varied audience that you're not even having face-to-face contact with, how do you incorporate learning styles into that?

I wrote more on this is another post: Learning Styles as Fortune Telling. (The title is a reference to something Steven Stahl wrote).

Rather than segregating learners by different styles where they will receive "one-dimensional instruction", we should instead create "multidimensional instruction" using a variety of activities and presentation modes.

For me, this is the answer as far as e-learning goes -- create variety (but not necessarily all on one page). And variety/multiple representations works on a whole lotta levels (repetition, providing more examples to support knowledge transfer, interest).

Cammy Bean said...


Just an addendum to my last comment. I googled you and found you (bless google!) and now I know all about your background: you do it all!

Thanks for the insights and for chiming in. I'm trying to sort this all out in my own wee brain here....