Learning Styles

by F.

Are some people “visual” learners, while others “kinesthetic” and still others “auditory”? People may have a preference for one or another kind of learning mode, but according to this piece in American Educator (Summer 2005) there’s evidence that teaching to that preferred mode is no more effective than teaching to a non-preferred mode:

Because the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory, it is not surprising that researchers have found very little support for the idea that offering instruction in a child’s best modality will have a positive effect on his learning. A few studies show a positive effect of accounting for students’ best modality, but many studies show no effect (Kampwirth and Bates, 1980; Arter and Jenkins, 1979). The most comprehensive review was conducted by Kenneth Kavale and Steven Forness (1987); it is especially relevant for teachers because it includes many studies that tested the effectiveness of specific instructional approaches (as opposed to laboratory-based exercises). Kavale and Forness analyzed 39 studies using a technique called meta-analysis, which allows the combination of data from different studies. By combining many studies into a single statistical analysis, the researchers have greater power to detect a small effect, if one exists.

The initial results indicated that teaching in the child’s best modality might have a small impact on learning, but closer inspection of the studies qualified that conclusion. The studies showing the largest effects had methodological problems. For example, a common error in studies of modality is a failure to ensure that the lesson plans and materials are equivalent in every way except modality (since that is the only way to be sure that any effect found is due to modality). Some studies have used materials specially-prepared for the visual and auditory conditions and then compared those to “regular teaching materials.” It is possible that the specially prepared materials were more interesting or better organized than the “regular teaching” materials. This type of mistake calls the results into question because no one can tell if the results were caused by the change of modality or by the use of better materials. (The results may demonstrate that children learn more when teachers use better materials.) When Kavale and Forness limited the meta-analysis to studies with few or no such methodological problems, the modality effect disappeared.2

Kavale and Forness’s meta-analysis provides substantial evidence that tailoring instruction to students’ modality is not effective; across these many well-designed studies, such tailoring had no educational effect. But readers should bear in mind that it is impossible to prove a negative: We cannot be certain that modality theory is incorrect because it is always possible that we haven’t looked for just the right sort of evidence. An inventive theorist could always create a new version of the theory with predictions that hadn’t yet been tested. Nonetheless, the meta-analysis included a large number of studies that tested many different hypotheses (see “How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?” for examples).

Although it is technically true that the theory hasn’t been (and will never be) disproved, we can say that the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence. If there was an effect of any consequence, it is extremely likely that we would know it by now.

However, according to the piece, learning modes (auditory, etc.) are relevant to teaching: certain information is best conveyed in certain modes. This is pretty obvious if you think about obvious cases (e.g., teaching someone to ski by giving them some essays on technique that didn’t have pictures wouldn’t work very well).

However, I wonder how many times people think about this when trying to teach someone something? Often, I would think, the mode of teaching is chosen because it is easy for the teacher, since every animal on the planet tries to conserve effort (e.g., “I’m a good talker, so I talk, even when trying to teach archery.”) It would be nice to find research on which modes go best with which subjects, for the non-obvious cases, at least. But here’s more from the article:

We have seen that the mind uses different representations to store different types of information and that these representations are poor substitutes for one another. That indicates that teachers should indeed think about the modality in which they present material, but their goal should be to find the content’s best modality, not to search (in vain) for the students’ best modality. If the teacher wants students to learn and remember what something looks like, then the presentation should be visual. For example, if students are to appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid, it would be much more effective to view a picture than to hear a verbal description.

Many topics may call for information in more than one modality. In a unit on the Civil War, in addition to lectures and reading, it might be appropriate to include recordings of martial music used to inspire the troops, visual representations (maps) of battlefields, and perhaps a chance to handle the pack and equipment the troops carried so that students could appreciate their heft. Similarly, if students are to learn the form of an English sonnet, they should hear the stress forms of iambic pentameter, and then see a visual representation of it.

There are other ways in which modality of instruction can influence the effectiveness of a given lesson—but the influence applies to all children (see box, p. 34). Experiences in different modalities simply for the sake of including different modalities should not be the goal. Material should be presented auditorily or visually because the information that the teacher wants students to understand is best conveyed in that modality. There is no benefit to students in teachers’ attempting to find auditory presentations of the Mayan pyramids for the students who have good auditory memory. Everyone should see the picture. The important idea from this column is that modality matters in the same way for all students.

This piece is worth reading, and ends by explaining why this theory of learning modes remains attractive:

Modality theory may also seem correct because, as we have discussed, children probably do differ in their abilities with different types of memories. I remember my daughter commenting (out of the blue, as 4-year-olds will) that her preschool teacher said “white” in a way that made the “h” faintly, but distinctly, audible. I was impressed that she had noticed this difference, remembered it, and could reproduce it. So my daughter may have a good auditory memory, and that might help her in certain tasks, such as remembering regional accents, should she decide to be an actress. It does not mean that I want her teachers to ensure that she receives primarily auditory input in her coursework, because her superior auditory memory will not help her when she needs to remember meaning. But it is easy to see how one might (mistakenly) believe that complex material would be easier for her to master if presented auditorily. Further, as the sidebar “The Content’s Best Modality Is Key” indicates, there are various ways in which modality does strengthen instruction (for all kids)—and it’s easy to imagine that the effect has to do with a student’s modal preference when in fact the effect is due to the content’s best modality.

The author of the piece is Daniel T. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal.