By Carol Lethaby

18 October 2017 - 14:36

Man reading a book
'Listening to what learners want and taking note of this in teaching is useful.' Photo ©

StockSnap, licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.

There's a long-held view that students have different learning styles and that teachers have to adapt their teaching to those styles. English language teaching expert Carol Lethaby shows that this is no longer a viable view.

What are learning styles, and why do teachers identify them?

Learners often express preferences about how they would like to receive information – by reading, hearing or doing - and these are often referred to as 'learning styles'. Many teachers believe that assessing learning styles and teaching to learners’ preferences will improve learning. But here are four reasons to reject the idea of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles.

1. Neuroscientists say the idea doesn't make any sense

Let’s clarify: the idea that some learners are primarily visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, and that learners learn in different ways because of how their brains work is incorrect, even though it originates in valid research. Different types of information are processed in different areas of the brain.

However, the brain is so interconnected that, as soon as one modality (e.g., sight, hearing) is activated, others are too. While it’s true that learners express preferences about how they want to receive information, scientists say this is nothing to do with how the brain works.

2. Learning styles are not consistent attributes

The researchers Krätzig and Arbuthnott tried to assign learners as either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners using two methods. The first was asking them to fill in an established questionnaire, which assigned a learning style to each student. The second was a self-report, in which learners themselves said whether they thought they were visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners.

There was less than 50 per cent agreement between the self-report and the questionnaire. How the students perceive themselves, and how they are categorised objectively doesn't match for the most part, making claims about one's supposed learning style unreliable.

3. There’s no evidence that accommodating learning styles improves learning

In that same paper, the researchers found no correlation between the learning style assigned objectively through the questionnaire and how well learners did on visual or auditory tests.

However, this common belief persists: if we cater to a learner’s preferred way of receiving information, learning will be improved. This is the meshing hypothesis.

The researchers Pashler and colleagues also criticised the research into learning styles. They argued that no-one had successfully designed a study to directly test the meshing hypothesis.

Another group of researchers Rogowsky and colleagues did exactly that by running two tests with a group of learners in 2015. They found no relationship between a learner's supposed learning style on the one hand and her actual ability and performance on the other. Teaching to a learner’s preference does not improve learning.

So, the only study that directly tests the meshing hypothesis finds no support for it. In spite of this, the meshing hypothesis has a strong hold on the English language teaching profession. My colleague Patricia Harries and I surveyed 332 English language teachers in 2015 and 2016 and found that 90 per cent believe that teaching to a learner’s learning style will improve learning.

4. Business interests are getting in the way of evidence

Schools pay a lot of money for learning style assessment instruments, training and applying the methods. There are commercial interests in keeping the idea of learning styles and the meshing hypothesis alive, even when neuroscientists and psychologists insist that it is a ‘neuromyth’. However, shouldn’t research and evidence have priority over business interests when it comes to teaching?

So what can teachers do instead?

There’s a wealth of evidence-based teaching approaches that we are not exploiting. Using learners' prior knowledge to help them learn new things is one such approach. What the learner knows already has a strong effect on how well they will learn new information. There is even evidence that a particular part of the brain is activated when we connect old and new information.

The connection between prior knowledge and the way the brain works is a new area of research, but the implications are clear. Finding out what learners know already – and helping them to make connections between that and new information – is a great way to help them learn.

Listening to what learners want and taking note of this in teaching is useful too. That’s not because it’s related to learning styles, but because of the learners' previous knowledge – we’re interested in what we already know about. This in turn helps us learn new things about the topic.

Working out how to more effectively help learners use what they already know to learn more is definitely worth pursuing.

Watch a recording of a discussion on learning styles or sign up for more webinars.

Registration for our next webinar on 16 November 2017 will open soon. The topic is Develop English for Academic Purposes: A Sustainable Academic English Skills Course.

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