The Truth About Learning Styles (Again)

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again…there are three basic learning styles, and everybody has one that they prefer.  Visual learners learn best by seeing information (graphs, maps, and pictures) , auditory learners learn best by hearing (speeches, lectures, recordings) and kinesthetic learners learn by doing (or touching, or manipulating materials).  You’ve probably taken a cute little test or quiz to determine your preferred learning style, and if you are a teacher you’ve been told to vary your lesson plans and teach to all three learning styles.

Before we try to credit or discredit this theory, let’s look at some known facts about cognition and memory.  First, people do differ in their visual, auditory, and kniesthetic memory abilities.  Certain people are better able to remember visual memory applications.  If ask you to visualize a pine tree, the Empire State Building, or the Mona Lisa; I am asking you to use your visual memory.  If I ask you to listen to three different recordings and  identify which one is Barak Obama’s voice, I am asking you to draw upon your powers of auditory memory. If I ask you to show me how to swing a baseball bat you would utilize your kinesthetic memory.  As I sure you realized at a very young age, certain people are just plain better at recalling visual images and certain people have excellent auditory acuity.  Of course, to the chagrin of many of us, some people are just great at remembering and re-enacting the perfect baseball bat swing, and some of us never seem to master it. 

Here’s one other thing we need to consider:  not all of our memories are mere sights, sounds, or movements.  Most of what we “know” is wrapped around meaning.  In other words, we remember things based on what they mean to us.  If a friend tells you a funny story about a co-worker who called in sick and three hours later was seen on TV, cheering on the home team at the noontime baseball game, you would remember the meaning of the story. 

I would remember the meaning of this story as “Somebody lied, somebody got caught, with technology these days you can’t get away with much, I’m so glad it wasn’t me, but it’s pretty funny that it was her!”  Most people would probably think the same thing about the story, or perhaps the “meaning” of the story would vary depending on whether or not you were friend or foe to the person involved.

I would also remember the visual elements of the story, such as the way my friend looked as she was telling it to me, or my visualization of what the TV broadcast would have looked like.  I would also remember the auditory elements such as what my friend’s voice sounded like as she told me the story.  I would also remember the kinesthetics of the moment, such as whether we were walking, sitting, or standing.  But the most important part of the story, the meaning, has a life of its own.

grapesThis part of the “learning styles” theory makes sense:  some people are better at certain types of memory than others. But the main, predictive element of the theory is that students will understand and retain information better (learn better) when the delivery of new material matches their cognitive style.  Let’s say we are teaching a class of 30 adults.  We’re giving a basic introduction to wine production.  We have a list of 30 vocabulary words we want the students to grasp. (Brix, Must, Crushing, Pressing,  Pomace, Racking, Fining, Acidification, Chaptalization, Malolactic Fermentation, Cap Management, Autovinification. Malic Acid, Lactic Acid, pH, Tannin, Sterile Filtration, Aging, Maturing, Blending, Carbonic Maceration….you get the picture!)

Let’s say we divided the vocabulary words into three lists of ten words each. For one list, we presented the information verbally…we read the vocabulary words and recite the definitions several times.  For another list, we present the information visually…we write the words and definitions on the board (or use power point slides).  For the third list, we somehow have our students act it out or use gestures to accompany definitions. If the predictive part of the “learning theory” holds true, the “visual learners” in the group would remember more of the words written on the board and the “auditory learners” would remember more of the vocabulary words that were recited.

Here’s where the theory takes a dive:  dozens of studies have been conducted along these general lines, and the theory is NOT supported.  Using a student’s preferred cognitive modality does NOT give that student an edge in learning new material.

How can that be?  Because what is being taught – the new material we want the students to grasp – is not necessarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic information…it’s meaning.  If we wanted students to recall visual information, for instance, the way the grapes should look like when they are ripe, presenting that information visually is the only way to go.  Use an actual bunch of grapes or a good picture.  Just imaging trying to describe what something should look like using just your words. “Um…they’re purple, but sometimes kind of blue, and they are grouped together in a bunch with a stem, like a bunch of grapes at the grocery store, only smaller.  And tighter. And bluer. Sort of.”  It sounds funny to even try.

The same holds true for auditory information.  It must be transmitted via sound (I know it sounds a little goofy when stated like that – sorry)! If we wanted students to know how the batch of fermenting must should sound, an audible recording (or the real thing) is the only possible way to impart that information. Imagine trying to describe it using words.  “Oh you know, it should kind of sound like soda being poured into a glass, but then it stops everyone once in a while and goes sh-h-h-h-h-w-o-o-o-f.” Same with trying to teach a group of people what it feels like to crush grapes with your feet.  You just can’t tell them…you’d better go get a bus tub, some grapes, and tell everyone to wear slip-off shoes.

Remember what we are trying to teach here with our list of 30 vocabulary words…it’s not visual, auditory, or kinesthestic information only; it’s meaning. Presenting information via the visual channel has not been proven to give a “visual learner” any advantage in learning anything besides visual representations.  The same holds true for auditory and kinesthetic “learners”.  An auditory learner might very easily remember the sound of your voice while you were reciting the vocabulary words (and can probably imitate you quite well behind your back), but “the sound of the teacher’s voice” is most likely not one of your leraning objectives.

So if the “learning styles” theory is really quite wrong, why does it seem so right?  This theory is ultra- well entrenched in the literature and philosophy of education.   A quick google search of “learning styles” will deliver hundreds of pages on learning styles from the websites of well-respected universities.  A page with the VARK questionnaire on “What’s Your Learning Style?” tells me that over 25,000 people have taken their quiz this month.  I’ve been to several wine-and-food related educational conferences where a session on “learning styles” was offered. It’s almost one of those things that we just want to believe, or believe because everybody else believes, like “people believe 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear….” which, by the way has also never been proven. And, of course, we have to concede that a small portion of the theory is true.  The fact that people vary in their visual memory ability is obvious.  Some of my students can memorize that wine map of Italy after just one look.  Others have to study for weeks.  They same holds true for the auditory and the kinesthetic.  But we can’t make the mistake of a false correlation between the natural ability of visual memory to an overall superiority of using the visual channel for learning the meaning of things, or for that matter, the learning of anything is isn’t visual.

Finally, a lot of the evidence surrounding learning styles is guilty of what is known as “confirmation bias.”  Once we believe something, we interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we believe.  Suppose, for instance, that you discover that your students score better on tests when you provide them with a handout after your lecture.  You assume that while your lecture might be reaching the auditory learners, the handout reaches the visual learners so that class as a whole performs better.  You feel good about your class and your ability to teach to “the different learning styles.”  What actually happened, however, was more likely the fact that some of your students used the handouts to read the material and study after class, thus exposing themsleves to a repetition of the material.  Using a lecture and a handout is just a better way of teaching than relying on a lecture alone.

Even better, of course, is the student who actually listens to your lecture, reads the book, studies the handout and engages in some discussion or other use of the information. That’s a good way of teaching meaning, and if your classes motivate the students to do just that, you’ve done a good job teaching – to any learning ability and any learning style.

If you’d like more information on learning styles, you can see my previous post on learning styles:https://bubblyprofessor.com/2012/01/28/train-the-trainer-are-you-a-visual-or-a-verbal-learner/

I also highly recommend Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?   (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009). It has a wonderful chapter called “How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” that discusses  and debunks the three “learning styles” as well as many other theories of “multiple intelligences”. 

The Bubbly Professor is  “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas.

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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