In Defense of Learning Styles

“Another nail in the coffin for learning styles” – students did not benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style

At the start of term, Polly Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin asked hundreds of undergrads on an anatomy course (which involved lectures and practical lab classes) to take one of the most popular online learning styles surveys, the VARK.

The results are bad news for advocates of the learning styles concept. Student grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style or with any learning style(s) they scored highly on. Also, while most students (67 per cent) actually failed to study in a way consistent with their supposedly preferred learning style, those who did study in line with their dominant style did not achieve a better grade in their anatomy class than those who didn’t.

I’m not one to comment thoughtfully on academic papers, at least not unless I’ve forked over several hundred dollars for a college credit, but this one left me a bit sour. Not for the clickbait headline, but for the assumption that learning styles are focused on quantity instead of quality.

In this study, learning styles were determined by taking the VARK survey, which measures propensity toward visual, aural, reading/writing, or kinesthetic actions. (As an aside, the VARK survey seems overly basic and filled with leading questions, and seems to hold no weight, which begs the question: why was this test and its results used to make a judgement on the types of learning styles a person claims to require?)

The findings: people who subscribed to one kind of learning style didn’t necessary learn more than the others.

In the words of the survey abstract:

Results demonstrated that most students did not report study strategies that correlated with their VARK assessment, and that student performance in anatomy was not correlated with their score in any VARK categories.

I mean, okay. But one thing this study doesn’t touch on, and I suspect it’s a thing that can’t realistically be tested in terms of effectiveness, is how much a student enjoys learning based on one style or the other. How much benefit is there to presenting different options that jive with a kid’s desire to actually finish the process, instead of just pushing through to just be done with this crap as soon as possible.

My kids go to an A+ School. Art-focused and sensitive to the idea of study strategies, the A+ curriculum is centered around presenting content in a way that’s comfortable. That fostering the acceptance and, dare I say, desire to learn is both effective and necessary, and that requires coming to the student’s level for methods and direction.

The idea of arts as a pathway toward leadership and deeper thinking isn’t too rare; literally, an entire era was defined by the concept, and integrating this kind of thinking with more concrete, functional subjects like math and science is at the heart of the STEAM movement.

But A+ School curriculum isn’t just focused on arts: it leans heavily on the concept of the Multiple Intelligences theory, which in elementary school means presenting concepts and subjects with the eight different intelligence modalities as a focus. To the kids, this means classifying as different kinds of “smarts;” Isaac personally identifies as nature smart (naturalistic) and body smart (kinesthetic), while Sierra identifies as word smart (verbal-linguistic).

Pedagogically, I have little to comment on — there’s a reason I’m no longer a teacher, I guess, though I am very excited to have used any form of the word “pedagogy” in a post, especially not in relation to Brad Stevens.

Anecdotally, though, I can see how focusing on learning styles and “smarts” works. It’s not about learning more than other students, or learning more than you otherwise might have. It’s about presenting the very concept of learning itself as comfortable and valuable — to give people an in to topics they couldn’t reach in traditional ways.

Which is why this study felt so gross to me. The measurement of learning as quantifiable, as if there’s a set limit on how much someone should learn, is not a valid metric. Instead, how a student learns and what steps are in place to keep them learning — removing barriers, understanding psychological needs, promoting small successes through gradual actions — are key in lifelong growth.

I don’t care so much if students who prefer visual learning actually learn more than those who don’t, or even if they learn more than they otherwise could without the visual learning opportunities. What I care about is how comfortable those students are in learning. How learning is presented as a possibility, not a struggle.

Honestly, I’ve always wondered whether or not the quantity of learning was affected by the different learning styles. But I’m not convinced I’ve ever really cared either way. On the other hand, I’ve never had a doubt that the quality of the learning was affected by using multiple intelligences and subscribing to a student’s preferred learning styles. I’ve seen it first hand.

And that, in my mind, makes this another nail in the coffin for articles that treat psychological studies as black or white, I guess.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 22nd, 2018