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Do Learning Styles Matter for Learning?

When it comes to learning outcomes, what matters most for our students' success?

A prevalent argument in the education research community is that learning styles hugely influence how well students will do in school. The learning styles theory argues that individuals learn best in different ways. A popular framework for learning styles is one that separates Verbalizers from Visualizers, and Wholistic thinkers from Analytical ones.

  • Verbalizers: People who prefer language-based learning
  • Visualizers: People who prefer learning with pictures and images
  • Analytical: People who prefer to focus in on the details when learning
  • Wholistic: People who prefer to look at the big picture when learning

To see how a student’s preferred learning style affects them in the classroom, imagine that you are back in your high school science class. The subject for today: glaciers and their formation. The teacher presents a slideshow of the various stages of glacier formation, using nothing but photos of Yosemite National Park. You get the basics of glacier formation immediately because you respond best to information that is presented with images. But your classmate Brandon would prefer to see slides containing text that explained the glacier formation process, so he has to work harder to understand the material. And another classmate, Alice, has trouble grasping the concept because the teacher focused solely on the nitty-gritty details about the various stages of glacier formation without offering any information about the big picture.

The theory of learning styles would argue that you would ace a quiz given after this lesson while Brandon and Alice wouldn’t fare so well. A proponent of the learning styles framework would argue that depending on the type of learner that you are, you will excel in one subject but not necessarily in another. For example, analytical thinkers tend to do better in school because their more detailed outlook allows them to come quickly to the heart of any problem. Verbalizers also do well because teaching is presented using written information rather than pictures so they can gain the most from it. But this theory may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.

I conducted a study with a group of high school students to look at working memory, learning styles, and academic outcomes. The high school students had to take standardized exams that assessed their knowledge in a range of subjects like English, math, science, history, and geography. When I gave these high school students a popular learning styles questionnaire and then tested their working memory using a standardized test battery, the results were surprising: students with good working memory excelled at all subjects, regardless of their learning style preference. The visualizers did just as well as the verbalizers in all subjects, and wholistic thinkers scored just as highly as analytical ones.

While this may seem puzzling in the context of the learning style framework, here is one explanation for the findings. Students who have good working memory are able to adapt their learning style to different learning situations, regardless if information is presented with pictures, text, details, or the big picture. Although they may have a certain preference for acquiring knowledge, they won’t be held back if information is not presented in their preferred learning style.

Adapted from The Working Memory Advantage (Simon & Schuster)

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