Debunked or not, there is value in reflecting on our learning style. How can we support this kind of self-reflection from our students?
It was June 2022, and I was attending a free event hosted by Adobe. As an Adobe School, Ball State faculty members and employees are invited to attend a variety of yearly offerings hosted by the vendor. I often register for vendor-hosted events with a tentative mindset. Will they go beyond the product? Will they dive into pedagogy, andragogy, and good practice?
Critical mindset aside, I will always be an Adobe superfan though. You see, I’m an Adobe user through and through. In undergrad, I was a double major in art education and photography. I used programs like Photoshop and InDesign on the daily. I’ve even used a few of their programs which are no longer offered to consumers. I have been in the field THAT long.
Now, in higher education, and specifically faculty development, I continue to lean into Adobe tools to map, illustrate, and present important topics, reports, and more to my various audience members in visual ways. Why do I do this? I enjoy using these tools to visualize my learning. Learning visually is my preferred manner of learning.
A Note About Learning Styles
Did you catch that last sentence? Learning visually is my preferred manner of learning. I’ve chosen these words carefully. You see, during my childhood and adolescence I often heard things like, “Sarah, you’re a visual learner, so this is easier for you than others,” or “Sarah, you’re a visual learner, so this is harder for you than others.”
Fast forward a bit to my teacher training program, and I was taught different learning styles and how to best address them in the classroom. We studied Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences at length. As art education majors, my peers and I mixed teaching approaches to appeal to the different learning styles of imaginary students.
Today, there is a lot of discussion concerning learning styles and whether they exist at all. Nancy Chick (2010) of Vanderbilt writes, “Despite the popularity of learning styles and inventories such as the VARK, it’s important to know that there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning” (para. 4). A bit earlier than this, Husmann and O’Loughlin (2018) aimed to evaluate whether or not undergraduate anatomy students were more likely to use learning strategies that aligned with their supposed learning styles. They found that students did not study in ways that reflected their learning style. Of the students who did, they didn’t do any better on their assessments.
Olga Khazan (2018) introduced me to another study via her article, The Myth of “‘Learning Styles.” Khazan pointed me to the work of Knoll, Otani, Skeel and Horn (2017) who learned that students who preferred learning visually assumed that they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred verbal learning thought they would remember words better. However, no correlation was found between perceived learning style and information retained. The researchers posit that learning style, in this case, was really just an indicator of how the subject liked to learn.
Why Is This Important?
So, how does this impact me, my learning, my students’ learning, and my teams’ learning? Debunked or not, I place a lot of value on reflecting on this topic, and I’m a firm believer in self-reflection in the classroom. Promoting a culture of self-knowledge and self-reflection in the classroom is invaluable.
Consider an activity in which you playfully debunk this idea of learning styles with your students. A classroom debate can help students reflect and analyze timely topics while strengthening “skills in the areas of leadership, interpersonal influence, teambuilding, group problem solving, and oral presentation” (Leuser, n.d., para. 1). Here is one way to set up a friendly class debate in which you split the class up into two teams, one “For Learning Styles,” and the other “Against Learning Styles.”
- Collaborate with your students to create a list of guidelines to set tone and ground rules for engagement. Co-author a rating rubric with students to assess teams or individual debaters. Have a plan in place if the debate gets heated and participants argue instead of debate.
- Set a timeframe for students to prepare for the debate.
- Consider a practice debate to run through the process.
- Select the format you plan to use (could be teams or individual students).
- Distribute rubrics to students.
- Begin the debate.
- Following the debate, facilitate a group discussion/debrief.
Alternatively, you might ask some simple reflective questions of your students in which they respond orally as a group, or write reflectively after viewing either of the following learning style graphics:
Here are some reflective questions to consider:
- Do you feel images like these accurately describe your learning style, or the learning styles of your peers?
- Does your perceived learning style paint a full picture of who you are as a learner?
- In what ways does your perceived learning style do well to describe you?
- In what ways does your perceived learning style limit you and other’s perceptions of you?
- How do you prefer to learn?
- How might you explain or illustrate how you prefer to learn to a peer or instructor?
An Alternative Way to Engage
Looking for a totally different way to promote self-reflection with your students that moves beyond the learning style conversation? Here is an interesting self-quiz. Students can complete their individual personality assessment and then share the results in small groups. Ask them to compare and contrast characteristics before discussing in a large-group setting. Students will enjoy the graphics and celebrity comparisons.
No matter HOW you discuss students’ preferred learning styles you are bound to walk away with a deeper understanding of who your students are and how they operate.
How do you weigh in on the learning style debate?
Australian Environment Education (n.d.). Learning styles, what works in your classroom? https://www.australianenvironmentaleducation.com.au/about/learning-styles/
Chick, N. (2010). Learning styles. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/learning-styles-preferences/
Holland & Hart. (2018). Don’t adapt to learning style. JDCUPRA. https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/don-t-adapt-to-learning-style-28227/
Husmann, P. R., & O’Loughlin, V. D. (2019). Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles. Anatomical Sciences Education, 12(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1002/ase.1777
Khazan, O. (2018). The myth of ‘learning styles. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-myth-of-learning-styles/557687/
Knoll, A. R., Otani, H., Skeel, R. L., & Van Horn, K. R. (2017). Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. The British Journal of Psychology, 108(3), 544-563. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12214
Leuser, D. (n.d.). Classroom debates. https://oz.plymouth.edu/~davidl/bu342/Debates.DOC
Sixteen Personalities. (2022). https://www.16personalities.com/
Dr. Sarah Ackermann’s background is in educational technology, instructional design, teacher leadership, and art education. She has experience teaching and leading in online, face-to-face, and hybrid formats. Her most recent research is in the area of teacher response and professional development during the COVID pandemic. Additionally, she has written and illustrated a children’s book which encourages young learners to identify their personal strengths.