What You Need to Know About Learning Styles

Teachers differentiate to three major considerations: readiness, interest, and learning profile. Matching instruction to students’ readiness correlates strongest with academic growth, according to research. Attending to student interests means finding what will motivate students to work hard. And addressing learning profiles can make learning more efficient by considering how students approach learning.

Learning profile is a fluid concept that includes how culture, gender, intelligence preference, and learning style might influence how a student approaches learning. Carol Tomlinson is quick to clarify that learning profile is not a synonym for learning style.

The “learning styles” approach to teaching has received a lot of criticism of late—particularly from three groups, Tomlinson told attendees at her ASCD Annual Conference session on the controversial topic.

  1. Neuroscientists say there is limited evidence that different people use different neural networks to solve problems.
  2. Psychologists discredit the theory because it is too diffuse—multiple models contrast and compete with one another—and there is no randomized research to support addressing learning styles in the classroom.
  3. Sociologists present the criticism that Tomlinson said is most worth listening to. They say labeling a kid is never neutral; drawing conclusions based on very little information across cultures is problematic, and by generalizing, we may cause harm.

Although there is research showing the benefits of considering your students’ learning styles, it’s not randomized, and therefore not up to the rigor accepted in the sciences. So should teachers completely disavow learning styles?

“Singing a song will never teach you how to multiply, but it can be the medium for practicing new skills,” Tomlinson said. She advised teachers to

  • Be wary of the reliability and validity of learning styles survey instruments.
  • Refrain from labeling kids.
  • Know that the same person will learn differently in different contexts.

. . . . and concentrate on

  • Using multimodal approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Providing options for processing and demonstrating essential content.
  • Helping students know themselves as learners, so they make wise decisions about how to approach learning tasks—as well as when and how to change their approach.

Overall, Tomlinson thinks there needs to be better listening between teachers and neuroscientists—the lab cannot replicate the reality of the classroom, and teachers can learn from the criticism of learning styles. The big lesson seems to be: don’t pigeon-hole kids. Tomlinson quoted from Dylan Wiliam:

“Instead of teaching to fit each child’s style, teachers should be aware of different styles, help students become aware of different styles, and encourage students to use as wide a variety of styles as possible.”

“We may yet learn that attention to learning style awareness works in a different way,” Tomlinson concluded. Variety is a motivator, it can create connections between teacher and student, increase joy in learning, and empower student voice, she added.

“It may be that it’s a motivator, and not necessarily about what part of the brain you do your learning in.”

Slides from Tomlinson’s presentation are available on her website.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I completely agree that we need to address different learning styles with our students, as well as allow them to learn and understand other learning styles. Sharing with them different ways to learn can be a key factor in motivating students to enjoy learning and become successful individuals.

  2. I do agreed we need to give students all the skills needed to learn. If making them aware of their own learning styles without the labeling what harm can that bring. As a teachers I have seen students benefit form the knowledge for learning styles ,because they can now understand why they pay more attention to the pictures and diagram in their textbooks. What we must do as educators is give our students all the tools necessary to motivate them to learn and to reach their highest human potential possibly.

  3. Making students aware of their own learning style can not only help them be more successful,but also other students. We have all heard before that kids can teach each other, sometimes better than an adult can. So if we familiarize our students with a variety of learning styles, they can be better suited to help each other understand concepts and discuss their knowledge of the content in ways that others can understand.

  4. I also agree. All students in all grade levels deserve every opportunity they can to be successful in school. This will undoubtedly follow them into their future career. If we offer our students a variety of learning
    styles they need to perform well in class they can better understand the concepts we need to teacher them as educators.

  5. I agree with everyone who has comment thus far on this post. As educators, we try to cater to every child’s learning style that we can deliver to in our lessons.
    A quote that caught my attention was this one:
    “Instead of teaching to fit each child’s style, teachers should be aware of different styles, help students become aware of different styles, and encourage students to use as wide a variety of styles as possible.”
    This is absolutely correct. If we have children in the classroom that needs the extra attention as well, we shouldn’t just put our focus into one child but deliver the lesson in many different ways so that all the children can benefit from it. At my current school, we are working as a whole to work towards catering and delivering in many different styles as we can.
    I definitely agree with Kimberly when she mentioned that children can learn from other children. What we are trying to do more at our school, is grouping these children with partners so that they can learn together. It seems to be working and I see a different on some of my children who are weaker. They seem to learn quickly from their peers. I witnessed this during a math lesson. I smiled from ear to ear as I watched them interact. Little Nicola had finished her work earlier while her table buddy Kevin was having difficulty finishing. Without being told, Nicola turned to Kevin and helped him with his work. She showed him the method she used and he seemed to understand it a lot quicker. It blessed my heart to see this.

  6. Vernonica,
    The quote that you mentioned really caught my attention too. I had never really thought of learning styles in that manner. I am guilty of trying to teach to fit certain styles, and I have never made students aware of the different styles. I think that it would be beneficial to have students realize the different ways they learn, and how one way may work better for them. I think it is also important for students to try to use a variety of ways, because one way may not always be readily available. Thanks for sharing your example from your classroom!

  7. I agree, students are different individuals with different characteristics. Some students are visual, they can easily learn through visual aid, videos or actual teaching. Some are good in reading comprehension in which they learn faster by reading books. Good thing there are different learning style to fit each students skills.

  8. I agree with all comments. I believe that in middle and senior school we need to remember that we teach students (children still) not subjects.

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