Great Myths of Education and Learning
Jeffrey D. Holmes is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. He teaches courses on general psychology, testing and assessment, research methods, and controversial psychological issues. Dr Holmes has published original research on racial attitudes as well as the teaching of psychology, and has published several book chapters on topics related to the importance of scientific thinking in understanding human behavior. He is the author of Social Psychology: Student Handbook to Psychology (2012).
Great Myths of Education and Learning
MYTH: STUDENTS LEARN BETTER WHEN TEACHING METHODS ARE MATCHED WITH THEIR LEARNING STYLES
The nature and importance of student learning styles are among the most written about and least agreed upon issues in the educational literature. Broadly speaking, learning styles refer to students' individual preferences for particular educational environments and techniques for learning new information. Scholarly attention to the potential role of learning styles in education began in earnest in the 1970s, but the concept is rooted in much earlier research on cognitive styles (Cassidy, 2004). A long history of research on cognitive styles demonstrates that people do in fact tend to think in different ways. For example, people who are field-dependent prefer to analyze information as part of a larger context, whereas those who are field-independent prefer a more objective analysis of information independent of the surrounding context (Willingham, 2009). Some people prefer to think mainly in concrete terms, while others prefer abstract concepts (see Kozhevnikov, 2007, for a review of cognitive style models). Claiming that such differences in thinking styles do not exist would be akin to claiming that extraversion does not exist.
Students will often report a preference for one type of thinking or another. Debate about learning styles pertains to a separate but related claim made by many educators - that instruction tailored to match students' learning preferences leads to more successful learning regardless of the nature of the material to be learned (e.g., Gregorc & Ward, 1977; Dunn, 2000; Zapalska & Dabb, 2002). This idea is very widely endorsed among educators. Nearly four decades ago, Arter and Jenkins (1977) reported that 99% of the teachers they surveyed agreed that "A child's modality strengths and weaknesses should be a major consideration when devising educational prescriptions," and 96% believed that their students learned more when teachers matched their teaching approach to students' modality preferences (p. 290). Recent data suggest that such assumptions have changed little over time. In a survey of primary and secondary school teachers, 94% endorsed the belief that learning is improved when students are taught in a manner consistent with their learning style (Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones, & Jolles, 2012). Learning style matching is also widely endorsed in higher education and among parents (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009), and college students likewise tend to view their own perceived learning styles as important (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Popular websites (e.g., "Overview of learning styles," n.d.) and even the websites of university learning centers (e.g., "Three learning styles," n.d.) assert that people learn in different ways and that matching learning styles with teaching methods improves learning.
The literature on learning styles is extensive, complex, and fragmented. There is no uniformly accepted definition of what a learning style is, nor is there a universally accepted model of specific learning styles. One useful definition that helps to illustrate the broad concept of learning styles is that they refer to "the way people absorb, process, and retain information" (De Bello, 1990: 204), although many other more complex definitions have been offered (see Hyman & Rosoff, 1984; Cassidy, 2004, for reviews). What is perhaps more important is the remarkable proliferation of learning-style models that scholars have devised over the past several decades. In an important review, Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone (2004) identified 71 different learning-style models. Whereas the established idea that people differ in their cognitive styles originated in psychological research, much of the literature on learning styles has been produced outside the field of psychology - specifically in such fields