Train the Trainer: Taxonomy of a Wine Class

In a previous blog post we learned all about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives, and how using this concept in the design and implementation of your classes (even your wine classes) can lead to improved student learning (and engagement and retention.)

If you didn’t catch the first post in this series, you can read it here:

As promised, here are some sample learning objectives for a class on food and wine pairing, for each  each level of the hierarchy. You can read the source material here

Additionally, as faculty often find it a challenge to develop effective test questions above the level of “knowledge” or “memory”(particularly multiple choice questions), I offer sample MCQ’s at each level.

Level 1: – Knowledge – Remembering

  • Learning Objective: List the three most important concepts to consider when pairing food and wine.
  • At this level, one simply requires the recall of information.  Warning!  A test at this level can be passed by a night of drunken “cramming” before a test, and the information forgotten by the next night of drinking!!
  • Please do not: Use this level for more than 50% of your test questions.

 Sample MCQ:  Which of the following represent the three most important concepts to consider when pairing food and wine?

  • A . Fruit, Flavor, and Tannin
  • B.  Taste, Flavor, Texture
  • C.  Fruit, Flavor, and Texture
  • D.  Taste, Flavor, and Tannin

Level 2:  Comprehension – Understanding

  • Learning Objective:  Identify what components of the food and wine equation  are almost always the most important consideration in a food and wine pairing and explain why.
  • At this level, knowledge of the three components is assumed and one tests for understanding of this knowledge.

Sample MCQ:  What components in a food are almost always the most important consideration in a food and wine pairing?

  • A.  Taste components, because specific tastes in foods will change the way wine is perceived in a predictable manner.
  • B.  Taste components, because they can be either matched or contrasted.
  • C.  Flavors, because tastes can only be matched while flavors can be matched or contrasted.
  • D.  Flavors, because “natural affinities” are among the best food and wine pairings.  

Level 3:  Application – Applying

  • Learning Objective:  Determine what is the most important element to consider when pairing wine with a specific dish, demonstrated by the following dish:  Grilled Halibut with Lemon-Caper sauce served on a bed of Asparagus Risotto. 
  • Note that at this level, knowledge of the background to the question is assumed to be both known and understood, and students are expected to apply this knowledge and understanding.  In this case, we are looking for the student to apply a known set of food and wine pairing principles.

 Sample MCQ:  When choosing a wine pairing for Grilled Halibut with Lemon-Caper sauce, what is the most important element to consider?

  • A. The lemon flavor of the sauce.
  • B. The flavor intensity of the grill marks.
  • C. The saltiness of the fish.
  • D. The acidity of the lemon sauce.

Level 4:  Analysis –Analyzing

  • Learning Objective:  Break down the various components of a dish or menu and determine what components are dominant and the effect each would have on a wine pairing. For instance, what impact would the acidity in a dish have on a white wine?
  • Note that the student is assumed to know and understand the information and to apply the information.  This objective stresses the ability to break down the food and wine in question into their component parts and assume an outcome.  Note that this question does not require the student to create a pairing (level five) or evaluate whether or not this is a good pairing (level six).

 Sample MCQ:  What effect would the Grilled Halibut with Lemon-Caper sauce produce when paired with Sauvignon Blanc?

  • A. It would make the acidity in the wine more pronounced.
  • B. It would make the acidity in the wine less pronounced.
  • C. It would bring out the bitterness in the wine.
  • D. It would make the fruity flavors of the wine pop.


Level 5:  Synthesis (Creation) – Creating

  • Learning Objective: Design a wine pairing of three different wines to complement the grilled halibut dish.
  • At this level, the student needs to have the knowledge and the comprehension of the principles of food and wine pairing, be able to apply it to a real-world example, and be able to analyze the components of both the food and the wines before he or she can create the pairing.

 Sample MCQ: Which of the following wine flights would make the best pairing for Grilled Halibut with Lemon-Caper Sauce, based on the proper taste components and a potential flavor bridge?

  • A.  Oaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer
  • B.  Unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer
  • C.  Unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier
  • D.  Unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling

Level 6:  Evaluation – Evaluating

  • Learning Objective:  Evaluate specific wine choices for a specific dish, and give your opinion on the quality of the pairings.  For instance, evaluate whether an oaked chardonnay a good choice for the grilled halibut dish in the previous question, and discuss why or why not. 
  • At this level, the student is expected to know, comprehend, apply and analyze the principles of food and wine pairing, and, describe the outcome of the pairing, and form an opinion on whether or not this is a good match.

Sample MCQ:  Is oaked chardonnay a good choice for Grilled Halibut with Lemon-Caper Sauce?  Why or why not?

  • A.  Yes, because the acidity is a good match and the saltiness of the capers will work well with the oak.
  • B.  No, because while the acidity is a good match, the saltiness of the capers will potentially clash with the oak.
  • C.  Yes, because the flavors of the lemon in the sauce will work well with the lemony flavors of the wine.
  • D.  No, because the flavors of lemon in the sauce will clash with the tropical flavors of the wine.

I hope this post gives you some guidance and encouragement to teach to all levels of the learning taxonomy.  I also hope it shows teachers that effective exam questions, even Multiple Choice Questions, can be written at all levels of the learning taxonomy and that we stop giving exams that are basically “wine trivia contests”. 

I realize that this method of teaching and writing tests is not simple, but it does get easier with practice.  However, keep in mind that teaching and testing to the higher levels of the learning hierarchy will enhance the quality of your teaching and the  validity of your exams – guaranteed! 


Train the Trainer: Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives

Benjamin Bloom  (1913 – 1999) was an interesting gentleman indeed.  Back in the 1940’s and 50’s he held several impressive roles in higher education, including 16 years as the “University Examiner” at the University of Chicago.  In this position, he analyzed and approved the university’s tests to determine if undergraduates had mastered the material necessary for them to receive their bachelor’s degrees. He also wrote or co-authored 18 books on education, all of them with the goal of “enhancing student learning”.

During his time as University Examiner, he discovered that over 95% of the test questions students encountered required them to think at only the lowest possible level…the recall of information.  In other words, most tests – even at the University level – resembled nothing more than a “memory trick.” 

I have to admit, I agree.  In my opinion, this is one of the biggest issues in education, including wine education, today.  A  while back, I was asked to look over a took a wine test written by a friend of mine.  It was intended to be the final exam in a semester-long “Professional Wine Studies”  course she was teaching at a 2-year college as part of a hospitality management program. Much to my chagrin, the test amounted to nothing more than a really long wine trivia contest. She could have sold it to Hasbro as “Trivial Pursuit – Vinous Version“!

The issue I had with the test is that all it really assessed was memorization. Very few, if any, of the questions required even the slightest bit of comprehension, application or evaluation.  Sorry to say, my friend was a member of the dreaded “lazy test writer club.”  The test she was about to give could have been passed by anyone who locked themselves in a closet with a copy of The Wine Bible for two days before the test.  Of course, the day after the test they wouldn’t remember a thing.  (We fixed the test before it went out to the examinees – global wine education crisis averted!)


Back to Benjamin Bloom and his solution for all this. 

In 1954, after a series of educational conferences, Bloom was tasked with leading a committee with the goal of improving  the quality of  teaching practices, curriculum development, and the validity of university exams. The result was a classification of learning objectives – the goals that educators set for learners – built around a hierarchy of levels of understanding.  In an ideal learning situation, students would master the lowest levels of learning, such as knowledge and memorization, and then move up to learning at the “higher order thinking skills” such as application, evaluation, and synthesis. If applied properly, this idea should influence or even change the way you teach, and equally importantly, how you design your tests. 

Here is a very quick overview of the six levels of learning, paraphrased in my own words. I hope they meet with Mr. Bloom’s approval.

Level 1:  Knowledge – Remembering

  • Definition:  Student recalls or recognizes information, ideas, or principles in the approximate form in which they were learned.
  • Good for:  Dates, Events, Places, Vocabulary, Key Ideas, Facts, Figures.
  • Please don’t: Write all your test questions at this level.   

 Level 2:  Comprehension – Understanding

  • Definition:  Student translates, comprehends, or interprets information based on prior learning.
  • Good for: Finding meaning, Interpreting facts, Giving examples.

 Level 3:  Application – Applying

  • Definition:  Student uses the information to solve a problem or complete a task.
  • Good for: Use of information in new situations, solving problems, case studies.

 Level 4:  Analysis –Analyzing

  • Definition: Student breaks down information into simpler parts and understands patterns and organization. 
  • Good for:  Recognizing and explaining patterns and meaning, seeing the “parts and the whole”, breaking things down, critical thinking.

Level 5:  Synthesis (Creation) – Creating

  • Definition:  Student originates, integrates and combines ideas into a product, plan, or proposal that is new to him/her.
  • Good for: Building things up, putting concepts together, creating new ideas, plans, or products.

 Level 6:  Evaluation – Evaluating

  • Definition:  Student appraises, assesses, or critiques on a basis of specific standards and criteria.
  • Good for:  Making recommendations and choices, assessing value, critiquing ideas, predicting outcomes.  

Due to its long history and popularity,  the actual wording and order of the “hierarchy” has been  revised, condensed, expanded, modernized, and re-interpreted in a variety of ways over the past 60 years.  However, Bloom’s Taxonomy has clearly stood the test of time.  Every teacher should use this material. 

It’s the year 2012, and a seminar on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives is included in my annual faculty development plan this year, as it is every year.  It’s one of the most important concepts I want my faculty to know..and comprehend, and apply, and analyze and evaluate.

Stay tuned later this week when I’ll provide some examples of “Bloom’s Taxonomy in Action” in wine education and testing.

Train the Trainer: The Power of Schema

Do you remember what it was like when you were trying to memorize the names of the different Champagne bottle sizes for your CSW exam?  You studied and studied, only to forget the terms by the next day.  Finally, you dreamed up a silly mnemonic device such as “Mary Jackson makes small boys nervous.”

Brilliant!!  Now you can remember M-J-M-S-B-N…in other words, the perfect sequence of:

  • Magnum
  • Jeroboam
  • Methuselah
  • Salmanazar
  • Balthazar
  • Nebuchadnezzer

Congratulations! What you did was trick your brain, and while it may have helped you pass your CSW exam, it did nothing to help you really know and understand the relevance of the different sizes of the bottles. In order to do that, you would really have to experience them.  I suggest buying one of each bottle size of your favorite Champagne, and on subsequent nights, consume the entire thing while both taking pictures and keeping an on-line journal of your thoughts. (What do you mean, that’s not practical?)  Never fear, there is an easier way.

As the Bubbly Professor, I am not here to criticize your study habits, but I am interested in just why it is so much easier to remember a sentence than it is to memorize a string of seemingly unconnected data, and how we might use such information to make our teaching and learning more effective.

It boils down to one word:  Schema.  Schema is a powerful learning concept which has been discussed in the context of educational psychology since Dr. Frederic Bartlett coined the term in the 1800’s – although if you study the educational practices of the Ancient Greeks you can clearly see that they were wise to it as well.

Schema is one of the factors of the educational process that can determine – in the first few seconds of learning – whether or not something that is being perceived will actually be remembered, and more importantly, understood.  A schema is a type of mental framework – a way of organizing thoughts around some aspect of the world. Schema involves prior knowledge, the structure of that knowledge, and the way we fit new knowledge into our “world.” 

Simply put, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context. One of the best methods for getting students to remember details is to tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details – in other words, introduce a schema.  

According to research, (thank you, Dr. R.C. Anderson),  triggering a schema around a moment of learning can increase retention and comprehension of the salient details by between 50 and 100%.

So, how do we harness this knowledge and turn it into teaching power? 

Here are three tips:

Teach meaning before details.

As we have experienced, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context.  To help your students remember details,   tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details.

In 2005, I did a little classroom experiment in my “Wines of France” class concerning the “facts and figures” of Beaujolais. Over the course of a year, 500 students were taught the details of the wine before the historical story of the wine, and another group of 500 were taught the story before the details.  In other words, the second group of 500 was provided with a schema. 

The results:  students who were taught the details of the wine before the telling of the story got a total of 68% of the questions on a pop quiz given the following day correct.  The students who were told the story before being told the details of the wine got a total of 91% of the answers correct.  While both figures could demonstrate the effectiveness of narrative as a teaching device, the students who were taught the meaning before the details did significantly better.

Use the power of three.

One of the easiest ways to set up a schema is to use pattern recognition using the “power of three.”  Three is the minimum number of items the brain needs to see before it recognizes a pattern,in other words, invokes a schema.  In addition, three details or “chunks” of information sit well within the limits of working memory.

It’s easy to think of dozens of examples of this concept in use in popular culture, literature, and oration.  For example:

  • Lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape
  • Location, Location, Location
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen…
  • Three bears, three wishes, three graces.  Now you know why there are three!

A great tip to put this power to use is to start a session off with the statement: “Today, I want you to remember three things.”  Everyone can remember three things, it doesn’t sound too hard.  Then, it’s your job to “chunk” all your “facts and figures” into three meaningful chunks – now known as “schemata.” 

DIY Schema

Since prior knowledge is essential for the comprehension of new information, teachers either need to help students build the prerequisite knowledge, or remind them of what they already know before introducing new material. 

You might have to get creative with this, but with the subject of food and wine it is often possible to find references to our subject matter in pop culture, movies, television, and even songs. 

Another great teaching tip is to create your own set of schema by purposely “injecting” your classes or sessions with references to future material.  It takes some deliberate effort, but your students will appreciate your efforts – whether they are aware of them or not!

Train the Trainer: Storytelling as Teaching

Storytelling as Teaching

It is a proven fact that the use of storytelling – called “the narrative approach” in teaching lingo – is one of the most effective ways to add interest and engagement to a presentation.  Storytelling works in just about any educational platform from lecture to discussion to on-line, and can help you reach your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.  A well-placed story can make theories or abstract ideas concrete and accessible, can spark interest in new material, and can help students memorize facts.

To put it simply, properly used, storytelling is a great teaching method.   I’ve used storytelling as a teaching method for decades, and would love to share with you all some of the specific ways I use stories.  Hopefully, some of them will make sense to you and you’ll be able to use them in your teaching as well.

 Use stories to spark interest when introducing a new concept.

Familiar stories, especially those from literature, movies, or popular culture, can be useful to ease the transition into a totally new subject matter. I use the familiar Edgar Allen Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” as an introduction to the subject of Sherry. Despite its status as one of the world’s leading wines, Sherry is a very foreign subject to most of my culinary school students, and Amontillado is the only real Sherry they have ever heard of, even if they do not yet know what that means or why it matters! 

 Use stories to “sum up” the subject matter at the end of a presentation.

After a long, information-packed class, I like to tell a story to tie all the  information together and re-energize the students about the subject matter  before I conclude the class.  Some of my favorite stories and topics to use include Chianti and the Story of “The Hungry Black Rooster,” Charles Heidsieck and “Champagne Charlie,” and The History of Hungarian Wine and “Bull’s Blood.”  All of these wine stories can be found on this blog…just look  under the category “Tales of the Vine.”

Use stories as a “repetition” of important facts or concepts.

After I tell a  lecture or assign a reading that involves certain basic facts that are very important for students to remember (in other words, just about every class), I try to “weave” those facts into a historical or fictional story.  I find this to be one of my most effective methods for “pouring facts” into  my students. 

I often use the story of Emperor Charlemagne and the Vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne to prompt memory of the basic facts of Burgundy Wine, such as the type of grapes permitted, the many different vineyard names and the vineyard classifications.  Another cool trick is to tell the story at the beginnng of class – including all the pertinent facts, and re-tell the story at the end of class, but this time have the student “fill in” the facts for you. It’s a kind of “story-based quiz.”  

Use stories to tie new concepts to something students already know.

It’s a proven educational fact that all new knowledge if built off of information already in long-term memory. (Check back for a post on Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning – if you dare!) Thus, tying new information to something students already know will increase their interest, engagement, and memory potential immensly.  If you can find  something in popular culture that your audience enjoys (such as a song, television show, or movie) that involves your subject matter, you have hit the jackpot, educationally speaking!

You can use the familiarity (dare I say popularity?) of Dom Perignon, Veuve Cliquot, or Cristal to interest your audience in the story of Champagne. Use the stories to spark interest in grapes, production method, and aging underground. It wil make terms like “sur lie aging” and “assemblage” much more interesting.  I have even used scenes from “James Bond” movies that feature Champagne to peak my audience’s interest in the science of the wine.  There are some awesome James Bond movie posters featuring Champagne out there you can use as visuals as well.

Use stories to engage or “wake up” your audience at any time.

Before you begin a course, seminar, or sales pitch, be armed with at least a few stories that relate to your subject.  Then, if you ever sense your audience losing interest, hit them with a story.  It’s bound to re-invigorate your talk! 

 Remember, storytelling is one of the oldest forms of teaching. 

With all our brain-based science, educational psychology, and cognitive philosophies, one thing we have learned is Aristotle was right – stories are a great way to engage, inspire, and teach our students and our selves!

For more great ideas about stories to use in teaching wine, check under the “Tales of the Vine” category on this blog.

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




Train the Trainer: Teaching to the Whole Brain

I always find it amusing when I get bored in a wine seminar.  After all, there is nothing I am more fascinated by than wine.  I have spent my entire adult life learning about and enjoying wine.  I teach wine for a living, and then in my free time go to wineries, wine tastings and wine stores.  And yet, I find myself falling asleep at a wine seminar!

What gives?  I am extremely interested in the subject at hand, and yet the speaker can lull me to sleep.  Most likely, I am being subject to a speaker that is only engaging a a mere segment  of my mind.  Most seminars include speaking (zzzzzz……………) which only engages a little area on the left side of my brain called “Wernicke’s Area.”  If you have ever heard the (not quite true) cliché that we only use 10% of our brain power, this is one situation where it makes sense.  Anyone sitting and listening to a speaker is only about 10% engaged, and the other 90% is probably either falling asleep or writing a grocery list.

To approach maximum engagement, we need to teach to the whole brain.  Luckily, modern science has given us the tools to do so.  We know now that we can teach to six separate-yet-connected parts of the brain, each controlling a different aspect of attention, cognitive processing and memory.  We also know the specific teaching techniques to use to keep all six of these areas of the brain firing on all cylinders. 

To be a practitioner of Whole Brain Teaching, work on including these six elements in your teaching:

Listening –This one is easy, as just about all teaching involves a speaker, which forces our audience to listen.  Listening is controlled by Wernicke’s area on the left side of the brain. This one is a given…however, to be a whole brain teacher, you need to move well beyond listening.

Visual – The visual cortex uses over half of the brain’s energy and is a powerful tool for both learning and engagement.  Most teachers and speakers these days use what they consider visual elements in their teaching with power point slides, white boards, and handouts.  However…words on a screen or a written handout are not true visuals!  Words on a screen or written documents are not “processed” by the brain in the same way a picture is.  When you see words on a screen you read them to yourself, and the data is processed by the verbal (listening) side of the brain.   To enhance learning and not distract the learner, make sure your visuals are true visuals – meaning pictures or graphs.  

Critical Thinking – Our brains are kind enough to give us a pleasurable “rush” of dopamine when we solve a problem.  It’s the reason that so many people like to do crossword puzzles and play Sudoku. It’s also the reason why you feel so good when your figure out how to stop the faucet from leaking or change the battery in your car.  The real rush comes from not just getting it done but the fact that you figured it out.  To put this in an educational context, remember that just sitting and listening can get very boring…but you can keep your students in the flow of what scientists call “reward-driven learning” by stimulating their pre-frontal cortex…that part of the brain that handles thought processes that involve decision making, compare and contrast, explanations, examples, and schema.  The point is to allow your students to solve a “mental puzzle” related to the subject at hand.

Movement – You can stimulate the very powerful motor cortex by adding gestures and movement to your teaching.  It may seem a bit silly, but kinetic memories are among the strongest memories.  You never really forget how to walk or ride a bike!

Speaking – Let your students talk! Adding active speech to your classes, whether from discussion or recitation, spark’s the brain region known as “Broca’s area” and is an excellent tool for engagement.  Breaking the students into small groups or even teams of two and having them relate back key points of the class, quiz each other or even “teach” each other for one or two minutes is an excellent way to bring speaking into class as a directed activity.

Emotions – The limbic system, at the center of the brain, controls emotions and emotional memories.  If you leave out the emotions, you have “hollow brain teaching”!  Use emotionally competent stimuli to invoke humor, curiosity, outrage, awe, nostalgia…any emotion will do!

Remember, the more you can use these six activities…the more you will be teaching to the whole brain…and the more your students will enjoy and remember your class.  Good Luck!


Train the Trainer: There’s More to Class than just the Glass

There’s More to Class than Just the Glass

As a full-time wine educator, I have found myself teaching classes and leading wine tastings in some unusual spots.  Many of my classes are held in my super-comfy, perfectly designed, high-tech enhanced wine lab college classroom.  This setting is as conducive to learning as a setting can be. Wine and food conferences, and in my case mostly wine and food education conferences are also good situations for teaching and learning…at least people are sitting down, facing the speaker, and we can assume the audience wants to listen and learn.

However, part of a wine educator’s life is spent on the road, and I have also taught classes in winery barrel rooms, in restaurants during the dinner rush, and at wine bars in the midst of happy hour.  Add to the list the seminars I have led outdoors at wine festivals, trade tastings, womens’ retreats and rock concerts. (You will note I did not include private homes…Miss Jane does not do private homes.)

Let’s face it:  it can be hard to engage and actually teach students about wine when they are outside, at a rock concert, or even at a wine bar; and my educational philosophy and practice is all about engagement.  I want my students to be not just at attention but fully engaged.  Attention is great – you need to have a full repertoire of attention grabbers.  Once you have gotten your audience’s attention they should be listening, observant, and interested in what you are about to present.  Attention is valuable but it only lasts for a few minutes until minds start to wander.

Engagement, on the other hand, goes deeper than attention.  When your class is fully engaged, they are physically energized, emotionally connected, and mentally focused on the subject at hand.  Engagement in the material at hand should be one of the main goals of instruction, and “points of engagement” should be pre-scripted into your lesson plan just as carefully as your course objectives and class material.

Obviously, a wine class has a few built-in advantages when it comes to student engagement.  First of all, it’s about wine (a fascinating subject and one with broad appeal.)  Secondly, we usually have a built-in activity (also very appealing) when we lead a tasting.

The challenge for me, I have found, in leading a tasting class is not in just keeping the audience engaged, but keeping them focused on learning and not merely engaged in the tasting itself – in other words, enjoying the wine more than the class.  As we all know, this type of “tasting” can devolve into “drinking” quickly if not managed.

I am sure that we have all found that during an instructor-led tasting, students tend to get excited and chatty.  Left unmonitored, it gets louder and louder – which is great if you are at a party, or maybe if you are leading one of those tastings at a wine bar or rock concert.  However, if you want to balance fun with serious learning, this can be a challenge.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own system for walking this fine line.  When leading a tasting activity,  I generally let the students taste and talk amongst themselves for a few minutes – after all, talking is the ultimate engagement – and then try bring them gently back to attention for further instruction. To do this effectively, you need an abrupt attention grabber.  Most teachers whistle or scream or bang a spoon on a glass. There’s nothing really wrong with this technique -it certainly does work – but it can also leave students unfocused, annoyed, or even angry.  (Note:  nothing halts learning quicker than anger.)

What I do to avoid this backlash is this:  I introduce the wine, tell the class I am going to give them five minutes to taste and talk amongst themselves and will then bring them back to attention for group discussion and further instructor-led content.  Then I play some background music appropriate to the theme and setting.  When the time for tasting and talking is over and I want to turn their attention back to my presentation, I turn up the volume briefly and then turn it off.  Works everytime, and no one shoots me a dirty look or complains!

Here’s my advice to you:  try to develop a your own signature style of focusing the class after a tasting break or other group activity.  You might use a call and response, flick the lights, have everyone stand up, or use music like I do.  In a pinch, you can always bang a spoon on a glass.

Train the Trainer: Are you a visual or a verbal learner?


Are you a visual or a verbal learner? Do you tout the fact that there are four learning styles – and your classes engage each one of them? Do you make power point slides and handouts in an attempt to “engage visual learners”? Do you think your lecture and discussion is ideal for “engaging auditory learners”? If so, you are not alone…but many people will argue that you are wrong! Ouch!

Let’s give this side of the story a chance and consider that it might be high time to get over this antiquated idea of education.

For more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence on education. The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and others will learn better when the material is presented verbally (or kinesthetically, or logically) is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and  teaching guides available, not to mention the reams of literature on the subject.  Just google “learning styles” and see what happens.  I got over 14 million results touting no less than 71 different “learning styles” – all in 1.3 seconds!


This is not to say that people do not differ in learning abilities.  A person with a high level of visual learning ability will be able to easily recall if an image was red or blue, and will have a high level of recall of people’s faces.  A person with a high level of auditory learning ability will have an uncanny ability to differentiate between different pitches, levels of volume, and the unique sound of a voice.  However, this does not imply higher levels of the construction of new knowledge, new meaning, new vocabulary, new concepts or new context based on the path of input.

Modern scientific research simply does NOT support the existence of different learning styles, nor the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style.  As a matter of fact, reams of literature have also been written on the subject that there are NOT four distinct learning styles. I got nearly as many google hits by using the terms “learning styles don’t exist” and “learning styles debunked” as I did on “learning styles” alone! If you don’t want to believe me (or google), perhaps you will believe a team of eminent researchers in learning psychology and their report published in December 2009 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners,” those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.


Or perhaps you will believe a Harvard  Ph.D.  Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist and author of Why Don’t Students Like School, recently posted a short video on youtube entitled “Learning Styles Don’t Exist.” I highly recommend it, and his book for that matter. Dang. So, if it is just not as simple as “learning styles”, what’s an educator to do?  At the risk of oversimplification, I believe we should concentrate on what cognitive processes learners have in common rather than focusing on how they might be different. The latest research on learning, and something that has certainly changed the way I teach, is well reflected in something called “whole brain teaching.”

Whole brain teaching recognizes that maximum learning occurs when a learning activity involves visual, verbal, and emotional elements combined with activities requiring critical thinking, movement and speech.  Teaching in this way triggers action in the “whole brain”, in other words, six distinct regions of brain activity working in conjunction. And while we are at it, please forget the cliché that “we only use 10% of our brain capacity.”  The truth is actually closer to “we only engage 10% of the brain at a time when using outdated teaching techniques.”

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