In a paper published in December 2009, psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork argue that there is no strong scientific evidence to support matching instruction to students' dominant learning styles. In the article, "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence," published in the Association for Psychological Science's journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the authors say the majority of research on matching teaching styles to learning styles is marred by weak experimental design, resulting in little decisive evidence.
In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, study author Pashler said the findings imply that teachers should not "waste time figuring out the composition of learning styles in their classrooms." According to Pashler and colleagues, teachers should instead "worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions."
Critics of "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" say the study narrowly focuses on matching one instructional approach to the majority learning style in a class, to the exclusion of differentiated instructional approaches, and does not consider the full canon of learning styles research.
For this segment of the Education Update series "Responding to the Research," Laura Varlas asked learning styles experts Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini to give their take on the findings of Pashler and colleagues.
Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini:
Everybody seems to be talking about this study, so we're glad to have this opportunity to respond. Above all, we want to clarify that the authors only reviewed one approach to learning styles–based instruction: grouping students by style and matching each group to one particular style of instruction. Differentiated instruction proponents, ourselves included, do not advocate this kind of matching as the optimal form of instruction. Along with Bernice McCarthy and David Kolb, and supported by Robert Sternberg's research, we've long argued that teaching to the full range of styles is far better and more consistently leads to higher achievement across grade and content levels than confining students to a single style of instruction.
Distinguishing between our view of learning styles and the view examined in the study is important because the authors' conclusion about the use of style assessments in schools depends on a view of style matching that not everyone shares. And reported lack of evidence for matching is being misinterpreted as a criticism of style-based instruction in general.
Pashler and his team conclude that using learning-style assessments in schools is "unwise" because they found minimal evidence that test performance improved when students' styles were diagnosed and matched to corresponding instructional treatments. Although we don't endorse this kind of matching, we disagree with the contention that test scores are all that matter in determining whether matching—or any intervention—works.
A more important point may be that, in reaching their conclusion about style assessments, the authors overlooked the fact that they are used for purposes other than grouping students by style to facilitate matching. In our experience, learning-style assessments have proven to be wonderful tools for promoting conversations about learning, building teachers' and students' metacognitive capacities, increasing student engagement, and helping teachers find hooks into content for struggling students.
We've also found benefits for differentiation: teachers who assess their own and students' styles are typically more willing and able to implement a wide variety of instructional strategies in their classrooms. So even though we support the authors' call for additional research, determining the true educational value of learning-style assessments will require examining a wider range of benefits.
Clearly, schools face hard choices about where to invest limited resources. However, schools need not choose between learning styles and research-based practices for raising achievement. Paying attention to students' styles does not get in the way of using content to guide instructional decision making. In The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson, we present strategies that address style and the principles of effective instruction identified by Robert Marzano and other researchers.
The kinds of experiments proposed by Pashler and his team provide only part of the picture. In our opinion, the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of an instructional intervention is to examine its effects on teaching and learning, in real schools over time. From our work, we can identify dozens of schools that have implemented a styles-and-strategies framework and reported improved instructional and academic outcomes. This styles-and-strategies approach works because it does precisely what Pashler and his team argue good instruction should do: keep options open for all students by using strategies rooted in research to create "experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody's learning."
Finally, style advocates are hardly unique in calling for more diverse instruction. After all, study after study shows that teaching content in a variety of ways improves comprehension and retention. Look at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics position on how math should be taught or the instructional demands associated with Response to Intervention and 21st century learning. All call for diverse teaching practices that promote multiple forms of thinking.
Our 35 years in schools tell us that a learning-styles framework, linked to a repertoire of research-based strategies, is the single best tool for accomplishing this goal.
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