Forget About Learning Styles. Here’s Something Better.

Whenever I speak to audiences about the science of learning, as I’ve been doing a lot this fall, one topic always comes up in the Q&A sessions that follow my talk: learning styles. Learning styles—the notion that each student has a particular mode by which he or she learns best, whether it’s visual, auditory or some other sense—is enormously popular. It’s also been thoroughly debunked.

The scientific research on learning styles is “so weak and unconvincing,” concluded a group of distinguished psychologists in a 2008 review, that it is not possible “to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” A 2010 article was even more blunt: “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,” wrote University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener. While students do have preferences about how they learn, the evidence shows they absorb information just as well whether or not they encounter it in their preferred mode.

This doesn’t mean, however, that teachers and parents should present material to be learned in just one fashion. All learners benefit when information is put forth in diverse ways that engage a multitude of the senses. Take, for example, a program that teaches math using music. At Hoover Elementary School in Northern California, a group of third-graders learned to connect the numerical representation of fractions with the value of musical notes, such as half-notes and eighth notes. Fractions are notoriously difficult for young students to grasp, and a failure to catch on early can hobble their performance in math into middle and high school. Clapping, drumming and chanting gave these pupils another avenue through which to understand the concept.

Called “Academic Music,” the program was designed by San Francisco State education professor Susan Courey and three colleagues. Courey recently reported on the results of Academic Music in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics. After six weeks of music-based teaching, students scored 50 percent higher on a fractions test than students in the same school who attended conventional math classes. Children who started out with less fraction knowledge responded well to the musical instruction, Courey writes, “and produced post-test scores similar to their higher achieving peers.”

The lesson here: The “learning style” that teachers and parents should focus on is the universal learning style of the human mind, and two characteristics of it in particular.

First, students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms. They learn more, for example, from flashcards that incorporate both text and images—charts, graphs, etc.—than from cards that display text alone.

Second, students’ interest is kept alive by novelty and variety, so regularly turning away from textbooks and blackboards is key. As long as the new activity genuinely informs the students about the academic subject at hand, clapping a math lesson—or sketching in science class, or acting during story time—can help every student to learn better.

One more thought about learning styles: instead of dividing learners into categories such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, a classification I find much more useful is the one proposed by historian and educator Ken Bain, author of the book What the Best College Students Do. In Bain’s scheme, there are three types of learners:

• surface learners, who do as little as possible to get by;
• strategic learners, who aim for top grades rather than true understanding; and
deep learners, who leave college with a real, rich education.

Bain then introduces us to a host of real-life deep learners: young and old, scientific and artistic, famous or still getting there. Although they each have their own insights, Bain identifies common patterns in their stories. You can read more about these deep learners (they include astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and comedian Stephen Colbert) on the Brilliant Blog, here.

And right now, take a moment to appraise your own “learning style”: is it surface, strategic, or deep?

More than 15,000 subscribers to the Brilliant Report received this article in their e-mailbox earlier today.  Join them by filling out the box in the upper left corner of this page.—Annie

13 Responses to “Forget About Learning Styles. Here’s Something Better.”

  1. Colin says:

    Thanks for this post, Annie!

    Just a few weeks ago, I was in a presentation by a faculty member who was basing her research on learning styles (sigh). I asked for her to send me some articles in support of LS, but haven’t heard anything yet.

    John Biggs, upon whom I think Ken Bains based his recommendations, might cringe a little at your characterization of those three ‘types’ of learners. Biggs wrote about students’ /approach/ to learning as being very distinct from ‘styles’ or ‘types of students’. The approach a student takes (he has since revised the taxonomy to include only deep approaches and surface approaches) is dependent upon a number of factors including the goals and objectives of the teacher, the academic background of the student, the student’s personal preferences and goals, and the design of the activity and how it aligns to the learning outcomes among other things.

    A deep approach is characterized by the appropriate use of high level cognitive skills for tasks which require them. A surface approach is characterized by the use of low level cognitive skills for tasks which require high level cognitive skills.

    The key is that the approach that a student takes for one particular task may be different than the approach they take for another task. LS, on the other hand are seen to be fixed and task independent.

    For further reading:

    Biggs, J., Kember, D., & Leung, D. Y. P. (2001). The revised two-factor Study Process Questionnaire: R-SPQ-2F. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(1), 133-149. doi: 10.1348/000709901158433

    Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (3rd ed.). New York: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

    Thanks again!

    Colin

  2. fmoore says:

    It seems to me that our learning abilities change over time. The same person may engage in all three of the types of learning you mention at the end of the article, depending on the circumstances and environment in which he or she is living in at the moment. My experience in college was mostly about trying to grow up and disengage from my family. Now I have two master’s degrees and would classify myself more as a deep learner. People aren’t one “type” of learner or another.

  3. Paul Curtis says:

    I like your two lessons for teaching to the human mind. I’m a bit bothered by the 3 types of learners Ken Bain outlines. I’ve seen my students (and myself) fitting into all three categories at different times with different topics and different learning environments. I worry about pigeon holing certain students who have not been engaged yet as “surface learners” that we can write off. While there may not be much scientific validity, I think the spirit of it is relevant: That educators face a diverse set of learners who are engaged and inspired by different things and that require a variety of learning modes to get the most from them.

  4. Jacquelyn says:

    Can we consider it a continuum (surface – strategic – deep) are are they boxes? If so, what are recommendations to move students forward in the continuum?

  5. I love this; it exposes another myth based on genetic properties of learning. First it was the assertion of overall genetic intelligence in school. Then it was the assertion of multiple intelligences by Gardner. Now along with those myths the teachings of genetic modes of learning are in place. It seems so many persons in society, including teachers and their fearless leaders in education find it so self-satisfying, convenient, and perhaps even an ego boaster for themselves to follow blindly the myths of genetics in ability. It simplifies education. They are able to group persons into more easily defined groups for advancement and remove any need to help students improve their lives. It has been so convenient for teachers and administrators but pure “well” for the vast majority of students over time. Such genetic teachings are responsible for feelings of hopeless and anxiety even among many high achievers. This is creating from those myths many deaths each year from drug/alcohol abuse and suicide. Thanks again for exposing this myth. Now we need to focus on helping students understand and approach their individual environments more delicately to lower average stress and alter pace and intensity of approaching mental work to continually change and improve their lives.

  6. Gavin says:

    Annie,

    Loved this article. Especially the surface, deep and strategic modes of study. I know I have skipped between some of those modes in my learning life.

    As to learning styles. I agree that it’s difficult to box people into styles and that there does not seem to be enough scientific evidence. But I am not sure that there isn’t a middle ground.

    No data, only personal experience, but I know that certain learning strategies have worked better than others for me. They align with the visual and verbal examples of flashcards. Others, equally proven, have not worked. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach, which your universal learning style of the human mind suggests. Yes there are universal tenets, but a universal approach. As Colbert would say, “it doesn’t feel right.”

    Gavin

  7. Alan Wolf says:

    In looking at your/Bain’s typology, I can identify times when I have used each of those strategies. I fear in that replacing one label with another, especially one that is potentially used in a judgmental way, we fall into the same unnuanced trap. I can imagine these labels being passed between teachers. Why would want to put any special care into a surface learner, when I could put extra time into a deep learner?

    What I see in Bain’s types is motivation, not “type of learner”. I would love to see every student be a “deep learner” all the time, but I question how realistic that is. There is a range of behaviors, some maybe deep learners all the time, some maybe more strategic, too many maybe surface learning too much of the time, but I suspect that the biggest group is strategic in where they apply deep learning. If we are preparing students for life long learning, helping students understand how to apply these learning strategies by understanding their motivations for learning about a particular thing could be a useful skill for the future.

    I have not yet read Bain’s book, so I hope I am not mischaracterizing it, but I see the willingness to pigeon-hole students too often.

  8. David Rubeli says:

    Annie,

    You are on the right track by citing Ken Bain, who wrote the remarkable What the Best College Teachers Do almost a decade ago. But your closing question conflates learning styles and approaches to learning, and Bain’s categories as you describe them misrepresent and oversimplify the educational concept of approaches to learning.

    The trap that Bain and many other academics fall into is to forget that deep, surface, and strategic are aapproaches to learning rather than essential attributes of the individual learners. Approaches to learning originate with Ference Marton and a community of educational researchers in Sweden, the UK, and Australia.

    The point that Marton and his collaborators make is that individuals within a group adopt a range of approaches to specific learning tasks, and each person’s approach will change depending on the context and situation.

    I worry that the way that Bain and many well-meaning academics unintentionally misuse deep/surface/strategic learning risks creating another collective misconception similar to what happened with learning styles.

    Here’s are some anecdotes to illustrate the idea of “approaches to learning”: As a high school student, I adopted a strategic AND surface approach to learning calculus by practicing past exam questions without really trying to understand what derivation meant. In university, I adopted a strategic approach to learning about industrial geography because I needed the credit to graduate and was only marginally interested in the topic. I did what I needed to do to complete the course and get a reasonable grade. In contrast, I took a deep approach to learning contemporary American fiction because I adored the complexity and intricacy of the novels. Even within a course, my approach might change depending on what I was being asked to do. Many factors (particularly the kinds of assignments, the feedback from the instructor) influenced the approach I took.

  9. Carol says:

    Annie,
    I have been following the work of Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences and I find it interesting how quickly you assert that learning styles don’t exist based on two sources — you don’t even provide much data on how they come to the conclusions they reached.
    It feels a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    Respectfully,
    Carol

  10. Annie

    AS usual you articles are stimulating and enriching. For a long time and i still do albeit part time teach health professional teachers to be better teachers.

    I tend to agree on with your on this concept of learning styles. We should strive to ask our learners to be more deep processors. I think the content is what should dictate the presentation. if i am teaching a concept- i should present with all the mind maps and clearly show the derived principles. If i am teaching my students how to take history from a patient- i should have the video recording,i will employ simulation and use the video for giving feedback and best practice.

  11. Alex says:

    This is a very exciting discussion because I’m pretty sure many of you were advocates of learning styles at some point. I continue to be a proponent of learning styles but, that’s because I never interpreted them as “the way” or Tao to impart education and empower learners. I agree with the notion that there’s no solid evidence to establish learning styles as a stand-alone theory the likes of Multiple Intelligences, Cognitivism, etc. However, I currently researching learning styles and finding many peer-reviewed articles on the topic and its impact on learning. Here is at least one for now:

    Kozub, Robert M,D.B.A., C.P.A. (2010). An ANOVA analysis of the relationships between business students’ learning styles and effectiveness of web based instruction. American Journal of Business Education, 3(3), 89-98. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/195909757?accountid=10610

  12. nancy Deveno says:

    I appreciated reading about this updated information related to surface learners, strategic learners, and deep learners. Learning is directly related to “interest” and “engaging experiences”. In my own education, “theatrical instructors” grabbed my attention.

    Most all of us started out early in life as visual learners, communicators, and interpreters of information. I think that tells us how most of us ventured forward in learning.

    Why do surface learners do as little as possible? Maybe they are not engaged and interested along with no noticable account of what matters in life skills. (This is where the educator needs to step in and explain why it matters).

    Why do strategic learners develop top grades but no true understanding? Maybe demographics hindered their awareness of what really matters in life skills.

    Deep learners leave with a rich education because they maybe noticed the other two types of learners, were self aware, and confident.

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