Teachers should not tailor information to different kinds of learners

September 13, 2011 at 10:02 am 11 comments

The article from NPR (linked below) offers more evidence that there is no such thing as learning styles, but this one goes even further.  These results suggest that teachers do a disservice to students if they try to tailor information to the “style” of the student.  To me, this meshes with Mayer’s work on multimedia learning.  All people have limitations in perceiving different modalities. Mixing modalities helps, and human brains generally work similarly.  If you tailor for one modality, you’re probably overloading that one channel, and another channel may be underutilized.

Psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, who studies how our brains learn, says teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we’re on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it’s a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it’s presented.

For example, if a teacher believes a student to be a visual learner, he or she might introduce the concept of addition using pictures or groups of objects, assuming that child will learn better with the pictures than by simply “listening” to a lesson about addition.

via Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely : Shots – Health Blog : NPR.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  September 13, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Jerome Bruner redux, but with fewer ideas (for example, I think Jerry is quite right to propose (in the early 60s!) that the ordering of the “styles” is likely to be significant ….



  • 2. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  September 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Learning styles is an educational “urban myth” that just won’t die. They have been repeatedly refuted in the educational psychology literature, but there is an entire industry that sells this snakeoil to teachers and higher ed faculty.

    Pashler et al (2008) do a nice summary of the history of learning styles and the evidence against them. Denzine (2007) refutes them (and other silliness) in an engineering context (unfortunately, there is a strong history of learning styles obsession in engineering education because of Felder’s early advocacy for them). Willingham (2005) is a nice, concise summary of the evidence against.


    Denzine, G. (2007, June). Five misconceptions about engineering students’ motivation that affect the teaching and learning process. Paper presented at the American Society for Engineering Education, Honolulu, Hawaii.

    Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

    Willingham, D. T. (2005). Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual auditory and kinesthetic instruction? American Educator(Summer), 31-35,44.

  • 3. learningbuzz  |  September 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    You really can’t deny that people learn in a different way. But I do agree that sticking too much to specific learning styles can create an environment of segregation. Now the student starts to believe they can only learn one way and they deliberately stay away from other types of learning. For example, there is nothing wrong with reading even if you are a visual learner.

    In addition, the more we tailor our teaching methods to match the learning styles of our students, the more entitlement we give the students. At some point they even demand that the teacher changes their teaching methods just because they “don’t understand”. All of a sudden, the teacher becomes the reason why someone has lower grades or the teacher is to blame if a student refuses to pay attention in class.

    • 4. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  September 13, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      I don’t deny that people learn differently, but it’s a huge leap from that premise to some finite set of learning styles that are stable psychological constructs that can be reliably measured and should be taken into consideration by teachers.


      • 5. learningbuzz  |  September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm

        I fully agree with you. The more we categorize learning, the more we are standardizing it and that’s never been good for education.

  • 6. Casting Out Nines - The Chronicle of Higher Education  |  September 14, 2011 at 4:07 am

    […] the Computing Education Blog, some notes on an NPR article suggesting that not only are there no such thing as “learning […]

  • 7. Kieran Mathieson (@CoreDogs)  |  September 14, 2011 at 8:38 am

    There may still be an advantage in presenting information in more than one mode, e. g., text and a drawing. AFAIK, memory of the same information presented twice in different modes will be greater than memory of the same information presented twice in the same mode. Can anyone confirm that?

    Nothing to do with learning style, just the way all human brains work.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  September 14, 2011 at 8:55 am

      Yup, that’s what all the Mayer and Modality Effect work is about.

    • 9. Alan Kay  |  September 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

      Again …

      Take a look at Jerome Bruner’s work. He is one of the greatest thinkers on many topics, including teaching and how to create curricula … and it’s a bit of a scandal that so few today concerned with education are innocent of his existence and ideas.

      His main books have been continuously in print since they were written in the 60s, so it’s not as though they are hard to find.

      Best wishes,


      • 10. Bri Morrison  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:19 am


        Do you have a favorite (or two) that I should start with?


        • 11. Alan Kay  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:43 am

          Hi Briana,

          Jerry wrote 4 main books in the 60s.

          The Process of Education

          Toward a Theory of Instruction

          On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand

          The Relevance of Education

          The first is his report of the “after Sputnik” meeting at Woods Hole of top people from many fields to address the plea from the White House to do something about American education (and to make use of the newly appeared open ended funding that Sputnik caused to materialize). This is a classic “evergreen”.

          The second and fourth on this list are coherently organized essays that Jerry used to think about teaching and learning in general, with important specific thoughts about his project in the 60s: to invent a workable powerful curriculum for 5th and 6th graders addressing cultural anthropology. If people are only going to read two, then these are the ones I always suggest. “Toward a Theory” has been continuously in print since 1965.

          As I mentioned, Jerry used writing to help him think, and the “On Knowing” book contains some outtakes, but many of them very important ones.

          He wrote many more books, some of them refining and reformulating and changing his views. However, I think of these 60s books as a necessary part of any shelf of readings about teaching and learning.

          And I also think of them as “basic education in general”, meaning that great writing by great people is important to read whether or not one agrees with the conclusions, or whether they change their minds later on — the basic idea is that you get to follow the thoughts of a great thinker on tough subjects — and this can greatly help one’s own attempts to think (not the least because they set important thresholds that separate trivia from substance).




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