Getting over a theory of student learning styles

learning_stylesSome interesting points from a short blog post on learning styles.

The periodic critiques of the research make the same points. 1 We don’t know what learning styles are. Researchers haven’t agreed on whether they are attributes, preferences, habits, strategies, or biological traits. We don’t know if they are cognitive, neurological, psychological, or situational. 2 The reliability and validity of the many instruments created to measure styles are regularly challenged. 3 No convincing data links learning styles to improved learning. Since the 1970s, critics have been making these points. They pretty much conclude that if you want to predict achievement for a particular learning style or match a teaching method to a learning style, you would have as much chance of success using signs of the zodiac.


One of the outcomes of students making decisions about how they will learn and what standards of performance they will strive for is customization. Students do the customization within the teachers’ framework. Teachers don’t attempt to do the impossible—predict students’ learning variations and design appropriate exercises. The teaching task becomes how to design a classroom situation that maximizes students’ opportunities to choose and to learn from the results of those choices. Teachers then can focus on their most creative work—observing students’ actions and interceding to correct them. What do learners do with course materials? How do they tackle problems? What assumptions do they use? What do they do when they fail? Answers to those questions would most definitely improve our teaching.

I’m unconvinced that learning styles have a role to play in teaching practices. How are you going to change your methods of teaching depending on the distribution of students among the various learning style categories? Even if the concept of learning styles is real, if it’s not going to make a practical difference to teaching and/or learning, I don’t see how they can be relevant. Isn’t it enough to accept that people learn in different ways, and to design learning opportunities that allow them to learn in ways that suit them?