One more nail in the Learning Styles coffin…

//One more nail in the Learning Styles coffin…

We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

Shakespeare, Macbeth

Just when you think you’ve found a way to put the tortured soul of Learning Styles out of its pitiful misery, it lurches horribly back to life. For a moment I almost believed my last post, The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope might have done the trick. Sadly not. If anything, all I succeeded in doing was opening up a new front for misunderstanding.

Here was the 4-step debunking:

  1. People have preferences for how they learn.
  2. All people learn better when more senses are engaged.
  3. Some people need additional modalities more than other people.
  4. No one suffers from the addition of a modality that’s not their favourite.

The main criticism seems to have taken the shape of saying, Yeah, but isn’t modality just another way of saying preference? Is this just perpetuating teachers doing silly things in order to pander to students’ preferences?

No. No it isn’t.

To fully understand this we need to make sure we understand what is meant by modalities. The ‘modality effect’ is a term used in experimental psychology, most often in the fields dealing with memory and learning, to refer to how learners’ performance depends on the presentation mode of studied items. Although modality can refer to many different ways of expressing or experiencing information, psychologists most often use it to refer to information expressed either verbally or visually. It should not be taken to mean that teachers should express information through the modes of interpretative dance (unless in dance lessons) or ping-pong (unless in PE lessons.)

‘Pairing graphics with words’ is one of the ‘Big Six’ strategies from the field of psychology for which there is really excellent evidence. As this report says, “Young or old, all of us receive information through two primary pathways — auditory (for the spoken word) and visual (for the written word and graphic or pictorial representation). Student learning increases when teachers convey new material through both.”

Our working memory is made up of several interacting ‘modules’, two of which the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad process information differently. The phonological loop handles speech and sometimes other kinds of auditory information and acts sort of like an echo and temporarily stores about 2 seconds worth of verbal information before it decays or is over-written. The visuo-spatial sketchpad holds on to visual information about objects and the spatial relationships between them.

Although performing two tasks which require the same component of working memory can quickly overload our capacity, we are able to use different components of working memory at the same time without difficulty. The phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad can be utilised at the same time by providing ‘anchor images’ to support a complex verbal explanation. Everybody benefits from experiencing information through more than one modality.

There’s one other caveat to add: What we are learning has an important effect on the mode in which the information is best presented. The best way to learn the shape of a country is to look at a map; the best way to learn to play the piano is by listening and doing; the best way to learn to read is to combine listening, looking and doing.

Once again, the myth is that our preferences for experiencing information presented in a particular mode, or style, leads to improved outcomes. It doesn’t.

If you want to understand more, please explore the extensive reviews of the research conducted into the myth by PashlerCoffield and Kavale.

2016-02-21T10:35:18+00:00February 19th, 2016|myths|


  1. chrismwparsons February 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    Spot on.

  2. Brainless Yang (@AspieDeLaZouch) February 19, 2016 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    No problem with that, I’m sure you’re right. However, people live with myths: this morning my hairdresser told me that every single customer has a mythical view about which part of their hair grows fastest. By colour changes over time she can show that hair grows at uniform speed all over your head but they persist in their views. Preferences for experiencing information presented in a particular mode, or style, don’t lead to improved outcomes; but I’m certain that many teachers, learners and parents will continue to believe that they do. And between the 1.3m teachers and support staff working in schools, I think the words “modality” and “preference” will continue to be used imprecisely and inconsistently, making your quest even more difficult. Heaven’s sake, there are still teachers who say “appraisal” and “Baker Day”.

    • David Didau February 19, 2016 at 2:09 pm - Reply

      Actually, ‘appraisal’ is the official term for performance management again 🙂

  3. HEA Related | Pearltrees February 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    […] Now with the digital student project we have had a chance to look squarely at how the student experience is changing. One final nail in the Learning Styles coffin… […]

  4. brian February 20, 2016 at 9:10 am - Reply

    I think we are all agreed that the available evidence suggests that delivering instruction according to a learners preferred modailty cannot be assumed, of itself to improve learning outcomes.

    There are a couple of issues that are important in this debate however.

    When we talk about cognitive load, I think it is important to note that the theory tends to ignore the motivational aspects of learning. To quote that learning guru Charlie Drake, “if you want your boomerang to come back then first you have to throw it”.

    You may have the most fuel efficient vehicle in the world but that is of little value when it does not start. For many, the motivation to engage with knowledge is more of an issue than gaining 2% with the phonological loop. These days I tend to convert books into mp3 files and then sit back and relax with my Bluetooth earphones rather than read a book or other text. Often something which I couldn’t be bothered to read I am comfortable listening to. I listen as I go to sleep and when I am in the car. I like video also but often find myself not watching.

    The impact of engagement and motivation is important for me and modality is a variable here.

    I have been reading about levels of processing etc lately and there appears to be a good deal of difference in efficiency of processing via working memory including phonological loop/ visual scratchpad. I am still following the research and increasingly fascinated.

    I understand that for those of a more traditional bent, motivation is really not important for a number of reasons…
    – kids should be forced to engage
    – engagement comes solely from success and as traditional instructional is intrinsically engaging dues to success we can largely ignore it
    – progressive types simply want to pander to kids and allow them to have fun while paying no attention to the transfer of knowledge and this is failing these kids
    – “when I was a boy we sat in rows quietly, learning and showing total respect for the teacher and look what that produced……perfect old traditional me”..

    I can see some minimal benefit from repeating the mantra ” learning styles are imaginary” over and over just like it is worth noting that there is no evidence that listening to mp3 files while you drive your car is a valuable strategy but for me it certainly is.

    For me this is my preferred learning style and I am not going to stop using this approach just because of Dan willingham’s video.

    • teachwell February 20, 2016 at 10:11 am - Reply

      One does not dispute the evidence with opinion as you are doing, one disputes it with research and evidence, replication, etc. You fail to understand that this line of thought is precisely the problem ‘I agree with idea/theory x’ is not evidence.

    • chrismwparsons February 20, 2016 at 11:00 am - Reply

      Hi Brian – I ‘get’ your basic premise that the evidence that learning styles don’t make much difference comes from experiments where subjects were INSTRUCTED to learn something using a particular modality, and that the power of learning style preferences might be in whether a student feels inclined to engage with the subject matter in the first place. However, three counters to that from my own perspective if you wouldn’t mind:

      Firstly, I too have got really into audio books of late. For me it’s a great thing to have on the go through headphones for when I’m driving or doing ‘manual labour’ (domestic chores). However, I would still (if forced) instinctively refer to myself as a ‘visual learner’. If my wife starts to read something out to me I would much rather she just gave it to me to read myself.
      My point is that circumstance plays quite a role in my preferences, and I suspect that a large amount of the time in classrooms the same is true, and there are more or less suitable ways of engaging EVERY student, because the similarities they have in that situation are probably more significant than their differences.

      Secondly, I think there is a big difference from how we as adults might voluntarily choose to continue learning as life goes on and the situation that children are in, in the classroom: They are being TRAINED to learn in ways that they might not feel inclined to do.
      In all honesty, whilst “because they are being told to” might seem as one dubious extreme of the motivational spectrum, “because it’s presented in an appealing way” is the other dubious extreme. I wrote a lot about this kind of thing in a series of posts last year

      Finally – time taken by teachers to personalise their instruction in pursuit of such gains reduces the overall quality of the rest of their teaching. It is just a mistaken use of time on many levels in my opinion.

  5. Kapitza February 20, 2016 at 7:15 pm - Reply

    Lots of interesting comment and research on learning styles (and other ‘neuro-myths’) here –

  6. […] was already explained by David in his previous post and should be fairly uncontroversial. The word “senses” here can be matched directly with […]

  7. @SteveTeachPhys February 21, 2016 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    It is an accepted part of the process of doing science that evidence that is directly contrary to a given theory has to be taken very seriously.

    If instead of just accepting the phrase that you quote from the report on the “Big Six” about graphics and speech, you go back to the “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning” report that the Six are extracted from, you find that all of the work on this one of the Six is due to Mayer.

    The OISISL report concludes: “adding relevant graphical presentations to text descriptions can lead to better learning than text alone”. Fair enough. The report continues “students learn more when the verbal description is presented in audio form rather than in written text, probably because a learner cannot read text and scrutinize an accompanying graphic at the same time.” Not against it, but no mention of dual channels despite the fact both Mayer and Sweller had articulated the idea at that time.

    Surprisingly the report then adds: “It should be noted that current evidence suggests that a well-chosen sequence of still pictures with accompanying prose can be just as effective in enhancing learning as narrated animations.”

    This caveat is because in 2005 Mayer conducted an experiment where students were presented with paper diagrams and text, or with an animation of those diagrams with a narration that used very similar words to the text. They were then tested later on their retention. Guess which ones did better? Reading alone wasn’t “as effective” as OISISL had put it, it was better!

    Did Mayer admit that this blew his theory out of the water? Of course not, he invoked the cognitive effort necessary in constructing the sequential images into a narrative whole as being the deciding factor in the student’s retention of the ideas. In which case, no surprise, getting kids to think about what you are presenting is far more important than the ingenuity of your modalities.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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