“Learning styles” – there can be few ideas that have created such a stark disconnect between the experts on the ground and the evidence published in scholarly journals. Endorsed by the overwhelming majority of teachers, yet dismissed by most psychologists and educational neuroscientists as a “neuromyth”, the basis of learning styles is that people learn better when taught via their preferred learning modality, usually (but not always) described as either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.
Many studies have already uncovered serious problems with the learning styles concept, such as that measures of learning styles are invalid and that students do not in fact learn better via their preferred modality. Now further evidence against learning styles comes from Greece, in one of the first investigations on the topic to involve primary school pupils.
Writing in Frontiers in Education, Marietta Papadatou-Pastou and her colleagues report that teachers and pupils did not agree on the pupils’ preferred learning modality – a significant blow for the learning styles concept since “teachers typically adopt learning styles within a classroom context by relying on their own assessment of students’ learning styles.”
The study was simple enough – nearly 200 fifth- and sixth-grade pupils (average age 11 years) from five schools chose which was their preferred learning style out of visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. They also completed a short IQ test (the Raven’s matrices). Next, their teachers – 19 took part – first provided an open-ended answer to the question “Does teaching that is tailor-made to the students’ learning style reinforce the students’ performance?”, then they were asked to identify each of their pupils’ favoured style (such that each child was rated by one teacher).
All of the participating teachers endorsed the concept of learning styles. However, there was not a statistically significant correlation between the teachers’ judgments of their pupils’ favoured learning style and the pupils’ own declaration of their preference. “We posit that identifying preferred learning style can be a hit-and-miss process, with no agreement between the assessment made by teachers and students,” the researchers said.
There was also no association between the teachers’ judgments of pupils’ learning style and the pupils’ IQ, suggesting the teachers were not using IQ as a proxy for learning style.
A weakness of the study was that the teachers were not asked specifically about the kind of learning styles approach they used or favoured, so it’s possible they were not familiar with the visual, auditory, kinaesthetic breakdown, though this seems unlikely since this so-called VARK model is the most popular.
Papadatou-Pastou and her team concluded that “… if the identification of learning styles … is unreliable, as evidence by the findings of the present study, this should constitute an additional reason why teachers should abandon the use of learning styles in instruction.”
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