Style and substance 
Common wisdom among educators is that there are different learning styles: Some students are visual learners and learn best by seeing. Others are auditory learners and learn best by hearing. When I was a grad student, the woman leading the TA orientation went so far as to distinguish between tactile and kinesthetic learners.

Discussion over at Bad Science has me wondering whether there is any basis for this common wisdom. It is sometimes the case that-- on a given afternoon-- a given student will understand a passage better if they have it in front of them as I read it aloud. The claim that there are learning styles is stronger than this, however. It is the claim that this visual learner will (almost) always do better looking at the passage.

There are probably studies which show that some people have better comprehension if they read a passage and others have better comprehension if the passage is read aloud to them. OK, but why think that this difference represents a persistent character difference rather than a difference on the afternoon that the subject was in the lab? I suspect that few if any studies track students for extended periods of time.

I have no idea what kind of data could suggest that someone is a tactile learner. It is not as if we can compare a student's comprehension when she reads a passage with their comprehension when she fondles it. (This passage was... hard. The other one was crinkly.)

I confess that I have not looked at the literature to see if the evidence is more convincing than this. It is late at night, this is a blog, and that gives me some license to mouth off.

The distinction between different learning styles usually accompanies a recommendation for teachers to present information in different ways. That is good advice even if students do not have persistent learning styles across time. Presenting things in different ways makes it less likely that there will be a systematic misunderstanding, and more likely that students will understand what it is I'm yammering about.

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