Two educators I met as they were participants in case studies that crosses my desk recently are adherents to learning styles. This is the widely-held but false belief that individuals have preferred methods of learning. According to this idea, one who is an “auditory learner” will benefit from hearing explanations while “visual learners” will benefit from images.
This is a wonderful idea that does not hold up to study, however. What scholars have found is that learning material that is presented in their “preferred style,” student perform no better than if they are taught with other materials. It appears the nature of the ideas to be learned are as important as the learner’s style.
While discussing the cases studies, I rejected the learning styles explanation and others in the discussion challenged me. I paraphrase the challenge:
OK, you say that learning styles are not true. So, why is it that students tend to do better when I provide multiple ways of showing an idea?
My response was quite simple: Your students benefit because there were multiple ways of showing “it.” We know that the more times students encounter ideas in the curriculum, the more likely they are to learn them. Also, the more spread out these interactions are, the more likely they are to learn them. Further, the more parts of their brains they use, the more likely they are to learn. (Yes, I understand these statements are too simplistic, but I think the points are valid for our purposes.)
When designing courses, it is good for our students that we make the materials available in many formats. Give them a video to watch, an article to read, maybe a picture to illustrate… and chances to discuss these, ask questions, refer back to them… all of these steps will increase all students’ understanding of the material.
There is no need to try to identify learners’ styles and direct them to those that align with their style. Choose to use the best materials you can find, and encourage your students to interact with the materials and with each other and with you… this promotes learning in ways learning styles cannot.