Style and substance

Sat 25 Mar 2006 10:52 PM

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.


from: David V.S.

Sat 08 Apr 2006 09:08 PM

As someone that teaches remedial math at a community college, I'll add another wrinkle to this topic: the placebo affect!

I have students that are terrified of math, and not proficient at fraction arithmetic, as I try to teach them about percents, ratios and proportions, measurement units, and other topics.

When I do things that are aimed at different learning styles (and point this out) it makes the class and the math seem more friendly and approachable, which then lowers emotional barriers to learning math, which then aids learning.

In other words, I can add a kinethetic version of explaining a topic and it helps even the non-kinethetic-dominant students because, hey, math isn't so fearful after all if I can play with toys for 10 minutes.