backlog part three: questioning learning styles.

This is the third installment in a series dedicated to dredging the recent past for things unposted.

ALA Annual in 2012 was a fittingly Anaheim affair – meetings bracketed by frantic bike rides between bizarre hotels featuring piped-in lobby smells. In spite of overscheduling I was able to make an early morning drive to Huntington Pier with my sweetheart for a brief surfing session on a borrowed board. I recall that the water was much colder than expected, around 62 I’d guess, making my spring suit totally inadequate. I lasted for thirty minutes that consisted of many failed attempts, one decent rid1930 north side Huntingon Pier image from Library of Congresse, and a close dolphin encounter (in other words: worth it).

In addition to my date with hypothermia, I spoke on two highly enjoyable panels. The first I’ve backlogged elsewhere, the second was an ACRL IS affair on the history, applications, and criticisms of the controversial field of learning styles theory (co-panelists Lori Mestre/ Jean Runyon, moderated by the ever-awesome Anne-Marie Dietering).

Panel organizers provided a list of five foundational readings (PDF), most of which I refer to in this post (see bibliography at end), including H. Sanderson’s excellent and highly recommended 2011 article Using Learning Styles in Information Literacy.

I have an unfortunate habit of forgetting to record myself in presentations where capture arrangements are otherwise unmade, so to mitigate the stream of inscrutable slide decks I’m trying to at least provide detailed post-facto annotations – see the presentation narrative section at the conclusion of this post for an explanation of the onion, as well as historical perspective and a timeline of the development of four schools of learning styles theories.

I was asked to take the reverse of my typical skeptical position on learning styles (i.e., to argue as pro, which I managed at least to reframe as respectfully neutral in my examination of claims and evidence). This was an interesting (albeit uncomfortable) challenge in which I learned a great deal more about the troublingly small and typically commercial subset of learning styles instruments that have actually been confirmed as valid and reliable, e.g., the Kolb-based Learning Styles Inventory (LSI), the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and a few others. The research I undertook to prepare tended to support my opinion that at a practice level that learning styles are usually translated into overly simplistic and mutually exclusive categories that tend to pigeonhole the ways in which educators perceive learners  (e.g., “visual,” “aural,” and “kinesthetic”). However, it also confirmed that there are solid principles of instructional design to be derived from the relatively obvious notion that people learn in different ways, and several potentially useful applications of tested learning styles instruments.

learning styles: wreck

My main critique of learning styles theory stems from a perverse and powerful personal desire to sabotage all self-inventory questionnaires, which tend to force subjective self-representation into narrow and all too obvious categories (think Teen Vogue quizzes). Learning styles inventories often rely on forced sensory modality sorting (e.g. “do you prefer to experience a learning situation hands-on? visually? verbally?”) without confirming that selected modalities actually produce better learning through authentic assessment. In fact, research indicates that self-stated learning styles preferences do not correlate to improved performance on subsequent tests (Kratzig and Arbthutnott, 2006; Dembro and Howard, 2007).

Another danger of learning styles theory is the decontextualization of learning, in all respects an environmentally nuanced and highly individualized experience. An uncritical instructor teaching to learning styles risks giving primary consideration to a balance of sensory elements rather than to learner/educator strengths, cultural differences, community/power dynamics, (dis)ability status, student motivation, and content characteristics that lend themselves naturally to different media and modes of delivery. Several years ago I gave a presentation on Deconstructing the Learning Pyramid, a powerfully misleading and widely cited instructional graphic based on the unsubstantiated idea that, regardless of context or content or character, some ways of teaching inherently lead to more learning than others. While many learning styles schema are rooted in more evidence than the (wholly unsupported) learning pyramid, they run the same reductionist risk.

learning styles: salvage

I mentioned earlier in this post that there are useful principles of instructional design supported by the underlying idea of diverse styles of learning. In short, the benefit of learning styles theory is that it reinforces two central aspects of strong teaching practice: engagement (keeping the participant interested in the scenario and content) and differentiation (changing it up, not relying on one delivery mode or teaching style). Whether you are concerned with online or face-to-face learning or a blend thereof, creating multimodal, differentiated instruction that is content/audience-sensitive can facilitate more meaningful learner engagement and application (Sanderson, 2011).

Another advantage of considering learning styles theory is to encourage reflective practice. By using learning styles inventories as platforms metacognitive self-evaluation, an instructor can begin conversations with students and/or colleagues about beliefs, preferences, contextual efficacy, and universal design for learning. For example, in her section on learning styles in the context of e-learning, co-panelist Jean Runyon described an exercise she frequently uses at the beginning of her own online classes; asking students to complete a learning styles self-assessment to raise awareness of their and others’ learning orientations as well as to inform her delivery of content within that class.

Critical reflection on learning styles can be particularly useful in the context of instructor development. An example: this summer I observed ACRL Immersion co-faculty member Beth Woodard (a true spitfire) masterfully model learning styles best practices during Immersion Teacher Track in Burlington, Vermont. Her approach was to leverage the results of participants’ Kolb inventories to help them perceive how modality preferences might unconsciously bias their own teaching, followed by activities in which groups of “types” triaged problems inherent to instructional formats. This approach demonstrated to me that a critical orientation to a valid assessment of learning styles can stimulate important exchanges about differentiated instruction from the learner and educator perspective.

learning styles: verdict

As easy (and subtly satisfying) as it might be to offer knee-jerk criticism of a maligned theoretical tradition, it is far richer to examine its origins and debates for evidence of applicability. Case in point: in a subsequent Immersion session I was able to use the insights offered by this presentation research to provide far more nuanced critiques of learning styles theory (not unlike building a house then respectfully tearing off a wall to examine flaws in its construction) in order to foster discussions about theoretical traditions and the importance of dialectic. Given the persistence of learning styles in the literature, I would of course love to hear other praxis-based examples of using learning styles to good effect in digital or analog learning scenarios.

(1) presentation narrative

The following is a quick/dirty narrative of the presentation based on my preparatory slide notes (which are basically what I will myself to say but rarely end up nailing in the moment). Notes never turn out to be anywhere near as interesting as flesh/bone talks anyhow, which are always so vastly improved by audience input and energy: more motivation for future on-the-spot recording, I suppose.

Slide 1. Framing quotes:

Cassidy (2004): “there is general acceptance that the manner in which individuals choose to or are inclined to approach a learning situation has an impact on performance and achievement of learning outcomes… whilst, and perhaps because, learning style has been the focus of such a vast number of research and practitioner-based studies in the area, there exist a variety of definitions, theoretical positions, models, interpretations, and measures of the construct.”

Sanderson (2011) “Learning styles… are a fragmented, confusing field of educational theory.”

It’s my unenviable task to describe this half-century plus of learning styles work in the next seven minutes, so consider this a crash-course in the history, definitions, major models as well as their applications and presence in the information literacy literature.

Slide 2. Learning styles theory has a long history. The notion of different learning styles has its origin in cognitive style theory, described as long ago as 1937 by Allport as “an individual’s typical or habitual mode of problem solving, thinking, perceiving, and remembering.”

In the literature, cognitive style and learning style are often conflated or used interchangeably. learning style can be understood as applying directly to teaching and learning scenarios, or, “the application of cognitive style IN A LEARNING SITUATION.” (Riding and Cheema, 1991)

Slides 3-6. From this origin in cognitive style theory, in the sixties and seventies the development of learning styles theory began in earnest, proliferating into a number of similar approaches and terms: style, strategy, and prefernece.  Learning strategies (e.g., during studying, Hartley 1998) and preferences (format based, such as online versus face to face) are sometimes used interchangeably, but can both be understood as aspects of learning styles.

This raises an important point to consider – the “state or trait debate” – a central question in learning styles theory. In short, are learning styles a stable element in an individual over time (e.g., structural = trait) or are they fluid and responsive to each learning scenario (e.g., process = state). (Cassidy 1994, 421).

Slide 7. To begin to answer this, a few definitions of learning style: Claxton& Ralston (1978) – “A student’s consistent way of responding to and using stimuli in the context of learning.” Keefe (1979) – “The cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment.” Scarpati & Fradd (1985) – “Ways in which individuals perceive, organize, and recall information in their environment.” Cassidy (2004) – “the preferred way in which an individual approaches a task or learning situation.”

Slide 8. Given these range of definitions, how do we parse through the vase literature and myriad approaches to assessing (and teaching to) in physical and digital classrooms?

Slide 9. Curry’s (1983) onion model suggests a helpful metaphor, which is where the graphic comes in. Curry took 21 major learning styles models, analyzedthem, and found that only 10 contained baseline criteria for validity and reliability. These she divided into four organizational “layers” (three on the first round, four on the second, actually) that can be understood as corresponding to the layered states and traits (again, back to that central question) of an individual learner. The more central the layer, the more fixed or inherent the view of the learner and their particular state or trait. In other words…

Slides 10-14. At the center or core of an onion/individual are basic personality traits, and the influences of these on personality on learning. Which aren’t easily changed. Then comes the info processing school of learning style theory, an individual’s intellectual approach to adapting and assimilating information. Then social interaction, how studentsinteract within learning environments. Then an individual’s preferred environment or mode of of learning. Again, the inner layers of the onion/individual are the most stable and least susceptible to change (e.g, personality is core), while the outer layer is most potentially subject to change over time (e.g., if someone acquires a piece of new tech or mobile device).

Slides 15-16. Personality models (core) = Witkin (1962) field dependence/independence, Pavio (1971) verbalizer-visualizer, Meyers/Briggs (1972) sensing or intuition and thinking or feeling, extroversion v introversion, etc.

Slides 17-18. Information processing models (next innermost layer) = Kolb (1976) theory of experiential learning, learning and individual development, grounded in dewey & importance of experience, lewin, activity, piaget, etc. divergersassimilators convergersaccommodators

Slides 19-20. Social interaction models (second to outermost layer) =  Grasha (1972) six types of social learners, dependent independent competitive collaborative avoidant participant, also Dunn Dunn and Price (1989)

Slides 21-22. Instructional preference models (outermost layer) = Canfield learning style inventory (1980) related to hierarchy of needs & motivation. Scales in four areas conditions of learning, content (numeric or qualitative, etc.), mode (listening reading iconic etc.) & expectations (perceived grades) & Letteri learner types (1980)

Slide 23. ACRL IL standards mention learning styles directly in its pedagogy section, encouraging the IL educator as one who “responds to multiple learning styles.”

Slide 24. So how do learning styles actually manifest in our classrooms and learning objects? Sanderson (2011) identifies the challenges of applying learning styles for IL instructors, stemming often from vague understanding that we’re here today to collectively challenge. These include the difficulty of accounting for multiple learning styles into short instructional scenarios, and confusion about the particulars of implementation.

Slide 25. In my observation, applications in libraryland include incorporating active learning, varying instructional delivery across media and modality in an attempt to appeal to visual, auditory, kinesthetic learners, such as interspersing lecture with active learning opportunities and/or multimedia in an attempt to reach individuals with varying learning styles. This facilitates reflective practice on the part of the instructor, who, by considering this approach to differentiated instruction, becomes more aware of learner strength and preferences in order to faclilitate learning interactions that carry greater impact.

Slide 26. In short, the benefits of learning styles theory for IL instructors is that it reinforces two central aspects of strong instructional practice, learner engagement (keeping the learner interested in the scenario and content) and differentiated instruction (changing it up, not relying on one delivery mode or style all of the time).

references and suggested readings

Allport, G. W. (1937). Personality: A psychological interpretation. New York: Holt & Co.

Cassidy, S. (2004). Learning Styles: An Overview of Theories, Models, and Measures. Educational Psychology, 24(4), 419-444.

Curry, L. (1983). An Organization of Learning Styles Theory and Constructs. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (67th, Montreal, Quebec, April 11-15, 1983). ERIC Document.

Dembo, Myron H., and Keith Howard. (2007.) Advice about the Use of Learning Styles: A Major Myth in Education. Journal of College Reading and Learning 37: 101-9.

Desmedt, E., & Valcke, M. (2004). Mapping the Learning Styles “Jungle”: An Overview of the Literature Based on Citation Analysis. Educational Psychology, 24(4), 445-464.

Krätzig, Gregory, and Katherine Arbuthnott. 2006.Perceptual Learning Style and Learning Proficiency: A Test of the Hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology 98: 238-46. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.238

Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. 2008. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105- 19. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x
Riding, R., & Cheema, I. (1991). Cognitive Styles–An Overview and Integration. Educational Psychology: An International Journal Of Experimental Educational Psychology, 11(3-4), 193-215.

Sanderson, H. (2011). Using Learning Styles in Information Literacy: Critical Considerations for Librarians. Journal Of Academic Librarianship, 37(5), 376-385.


4 thoughts on “backlog part three: questioning learning styles.

Add yours

  1. Oh am I pleased to see your skepticism here. Few books have inspired such raw fury in me as Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, for very much the sort of methodological problems you cite. But it’s so very trendy and omnipresent. It’s nice not to be alone.

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