Forget about Learning Styles

Toward the end of one of the two day endurance tests our profession calls a job interview I said something I knew would destroy me. It would be the intellectual equivalent of pulling out a flask during the middle of the interview and taking a hearty swig of bourbon right in front of the committee. No matter how good things had been going, there was no way that this would not be the end. But I couldn’t help myself. I went ahead and did it anyway. I sat at the head of the seminar table, with several successful librarians staring at me, and in response to the question, “Could you tell us how you teach to individual learning styles in your instruction?” I said I don’t think there’s such a thing as individual “learning styles.”

What I said after that – an outline of the nearly unanimous evidence against learning styles; an alternative cognitive psychological model for how to approach information literacy instruction based on how student’s actually learn; and a reiteration of my research on incorporating students true selves into their research as a way to motivate their information literacy learning by tailoring our instruction to each student’s individual interests – none of it mattered. None of it mattered, because I’d said I didn’t believe in learning styles, and that is what people heard.  Because, as every good teacher knows, good instruction is tailored to individual learning styles. You do some stuff for the auditory learners; you do some stuff for the visual learners; and maybe you even lend a helping hand to the folks who can only learn something while watching that scene from Dirty Dancing where the Swayze lifts Jennifer Grey out of the water and “Hungry Eyes” starts playing triumphantly in the background. You teach to individual learning styles in your instruction.

I mean … right?!

Well,  no, probably not. If you’re interested in what the empirical literature actually says about how students learn, one of the first things you’ll probably want to do is forget about learning styles. Because if you take a look at the literature on this, what you’ll  find out is there’s no actual scientific evidence showing that students learn better when you tailor instruction to individual learning styes

To be clear, the key point is this. It’s not that people don’t have preferences for how they learn. People certainly have such preferences, and some of these preferences may, indeed, fall into traditional categories like “auditory” or “visual” learners. Point granted. What doesn’t follow, however, is that people learn more when teachers tailor their instruction accordingly. So, to put it rather bluntly, the implication is that you can tailor your instruction to individual “learning styles” all you want; just don’t think that doing so actually contributes anything to your students learning more.

As always, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham sums up the point nicely,  noting that, the “key prediction [of learning styles theory] is that students will learn best when instruction matches their cognitive style” (154; see Chapter 7 for a nice overview) And the evidence just doesn’t support this prediction.

So why does a belief in learning styles persist? I don’t know. People believe the stuff they hear, and most people hear that there’s a thing called learning styles and uncritically accept it. Here’s Willingham’s two cents: “it’s become the commonly accepted wisdom. It’s one of those facts that everyone figures must be right because everyone believes it” (156-157). We spent an inordinate amount of time discussing learning styles in my instruction class in library school. Our instructor, if I recall correctly, did not suggest that there’s a pretty unanimous literature within educational psychology documenting the case against learning styles, and it seemed pretty unanimous that people were on board with it in the class as well. But it’s important, if we want to remain relevant, to be cognizant of the best empirical literature pertaining to what we do. That literature speaks pretty clearly: one thing we should do is forget about learning styles.

What should we do instead? In some ways, that’s been the theme of this blog. We focus on the things that are empirically proven to help students retain and transfer information and structure our teaching accordingly. We take into account motivational aspects that contribute to learning. What we don’t have to do, however, is forget about the individual needs of particular students. And this, I think, is a major part of the allure of learning styles: that we want to treat our students as the unique individuals they are.

But there’s better ways to do this. We can take into account what actually motivates our students as individuals and tailor our instruction accordingly. I’ve tried to do this in some of my own work, and I think the best work done by instruction librarians will continue to take into account the psychology of learning and creatively apply those ideas to information literacy instruction. For the sake of our students, I hope you agree.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

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