Learning Styles Debunked [Series]

This is the third installment in a series about using Neuroscience Hacks for Library School. Here’s the first one on reasons to get more sleep and the second on breathing to regulate the nervous system.

In my other life, outside of library school, I design educational programs and teach for a living. We teach adult learners who study the material through both theoretical and practical applications. When presented with what feels like an overwhelming amount of new information, it’s common for adult learners to question the way in which we receive the information and seek out different modes. One of the most common requests we receive is for examples of the practical material through “how-to” videos. Students requesting footage explain that they are “visual learners” and need the video instruction in order to learn.

The truth is that as long as our visual system is processing information, we are all visual learners. With glasses, I count myself among that group. Without glasses, not so much. Given that any particular sensory system functions, we learn through that sensory system. Under those circumstances, we are all visual learners, we are all auditory learners, we are all kinesthetic learners.

This idea can be very upsetting for people. We believe that we have a particular style of learning and we are best served by our educators if they provide us with a learning experience that meets our individual style.

As a result, the learning styles neuromyth is a persistent one. It is perpetuated in education despite ongoing evidence to the contrary, much like the ever-present right brain vs. left brain debacle—don’t even get me started on that one! In my previous grad program, the learning styles myth was mentioned in nearly every class. It’s referenced in shows, articles, and blog posts. We believe it because we hear it frequently and the source is often an academic authority. We also believe it because it seems like a logical extension of something that is true: we all have different abilities. Yes, we all have different strengths and weakness. No, we cannot equalize everyone’s strengths and weaknesses by rearranging the way in which information is presented.

This belief creates some unfortunate barriers for students because we discount other methods of learning as less effective. For example, in addition to visual representations, good old-fashioned reading and writing (note taking), practice of a physical skill, listening to lectures, presentations, and audio recordings can all benefit the learning process. If we are so focused on a belief about the one true way we learn that we dismiss alternatives, we miss out on an opportunity for growth. So, if the learning styles myth restricts us as learners, what is effective instead? It turns out there are some well-supported, evidence-based techniques we can use.

Evidence-based Techniques

Formative assessments such as practice tests. In our school, we use weekly homework as a way to work through difficult concepts. The students’ answers are then queried so they can revise and understand what they missed in the first round—this helps students think through the material without the pressure of an all-or-nothing approach.

Peer-teaching. This can be formally arranged in the classroom through one-on-one interactions or presentations, or hacked by the student through study groups or explaining a concept in an informal discussion board.

Working problems and examples aloud. Our students love it when we examine examples of a problem and use case studies to talk through a process aloud as a group. In my online grad program, we use discussion boards and IM to figure out a tricky search strategy, for example. I could see this as an effective method for learning to handle challenging reference questions too.

Microteaching. Our students film themselves practicing skills and then send it in for feedback after first reviewing it to see if they can figure out what will help them improve. This is a technique frequently used for teachers- or counselors-in-training too. We are able to pinpoint effective moments of practice or identify areas that need a different strategy.

Letting go of the learning styles neuromyth may be a bit of a challenge at first, but doing so can open us up to a whole new world of exploration. What are some of the strategies that have worked best in your program? Please share your experience in the comments!


Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash.

Categories: Education & Curriculum, Neuroscience

Tagged as: , ,

3 replies

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