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Are Learning Styles A Myth?

Thinking you're good at a subject – regardless of results – has a major impact on how much you learn. Macleay Business lecturer Dr Manny Aston shatters the myth of 'learning styles.'

Wouldn't it be perfect if we all learned the way experts say we do?

A very interesting article in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning highlights what some educators call ‘the myth of learning styles’.

We are told that there are three main learning styles: visual (learn by seeing), auditory (learn by hearing), and kinaesthetic (learn by doing); and the conventional wisdom is that learning can be improved by matching teaching style with the preferred learning mode of the student. In fact, it’s more than conventional wisdom - catering to students’ learning style has been embedded in the framework of teaching and learning theory for decades.

A generation of teachers screen TED Talks for the benefit of the visual learners; gather podcasts to cater for the auditory learners; and devise a host of activities to engage the kinaesthetic learners.

 

 

Dr Manny Aston discusses learning preferences in How To Study Smart.

 

Teachers are taught that they should be aware of learning styles when they teach; and learners are taught they should be aware of their own learning style when they learn.

To this end, students are encouraged to complete an assortment of self-report questions which supposedly identify their particular learning style. However, rather than actually identify the way one learns, the tests merely indicate the students’ preferences about the way they learn.

When these preferences are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in their preferred mode or not. In fact, there is no real evidence at all to confirm that people learn faster or better when taking their individual learning style into consideration.

The truth is that breaking down the complex task of learning into a few simple styles is much like comparing the moon landing with a trip to the local supermarket.

 

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Dr Manny Aston points to new research which says learning styles are a myth.

 

Learning is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional activity. In psychological terms it encompasses almost every aspect of what it is to be human!

Learning is a combination of our cognitive, behavioural and emotional processes. These processes are further impacted by the nature-nurture duo of the natural learning ability embedded in our genes (put bluntly, ‘intelligence’), along with the educational environment we have been subjected to.

Have you been educated by the “school of life,” the HSC, or university? How long have you been learning? Has it been a traditional education or a progressive education … with an ordinary teacher or exceptional teacher … in a science based subject or an arts based subject? This list of variables is virtually endless.

Learning is also situationally dependent – so the type of learning we engage in is dictated by the activity itself, not the style. Learning to juggle for example ultimately requires ‘doing’; learning to paint clearly utilises our visual skills; while learning to play music benefits greatly from auditory (hearing) factors. In most cases a number of learning styles are being used in combination.

 

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Classic research suggests that perceived mastery of a subject impacts how we learn.

 

One classic research suggested that mastery, or perceived mastery, of a subject can have a major impact on how much we learn. Students who performed poorly in a test were given very high marks, and those who performed well were given low marks. In a follow up test, the real marks of those who were previously given high scores improved; and the real marks for those who were given low scores, declined.

What factor then, has the most influence on learning? While it is difficult to conclusively isolate a single condition, researchers and educators are in agreement that the biggest influence on our learning is motivation and interest.

So the take-home message for educators and learners is quite compelling – lessons need to be interesting, and learners need to be interested!

 

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