On learning styles

This post by James Atherton makes the case that, whether or not it is possible to identify distinctive learning styles or preferences, they are largely irrelevant to teaching, and are potentially even antagonistic to effective learning. Regular readers, colleagues and friends will know that this conforms well with my own analysis of learning styles literature. The notion that learning styles should determine teaching styles is utter stuff and nonsense based on a very fuzzy understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning, and a desperate urge to find a theory to make the process seem more ‘scientific’, with no believable empirical foundation whatsoever. This doesn’t make the use of learning styles pointless, however.

Teaching is a design discipline much more than it is a science. One of the biggest challenges of teaching is making it work for as many students as possible, which means thinking carefully about different needs, interests, skills, concerns and contexts. So, if learning styles theories can help you to think about different learner needs more clearly when designing a learning path then that can be a good thing.

The trouble is, thinking about personality patterns associated with learners’ astrological star signs or Chinese horoscope animals would probably work just as well. A comparative study would be a fun to do and, I think, the methodological issues would reveal a lot about how and why existing research has signally failed to find any plausible link.

There are alternatives. In the field of web design we often use personas – fictional but well fleshed-out representative individuals – in order to try to empathize with the users of our sites and to help us to see our designs through different eyes. See https://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/personas.html for a thorough introduction to the area. I use these in my learning design process and find them very useful. Thinking ‘how would John Smith react to this?’ makes much more sense to me than thinking ‘would this appeal to kinaesthetic learners?’, especially as I can imagine how John Smith might change his ways of thinking as a course progresses, how different life events might affect him, and how he might interact with his peers.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/learning_styles.htm

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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