Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pluto Is Not a Planet. Learning Style Is out Too.

This summary is based on my presentation on this topic at the National First-Year Experience Conference in Orlando in February, 2016.  There was so much interest in this session that all the seats were filled and many could not attend, so I am sharing the main ideas in this blog.

The planet Pluto has been part of our popular culture.  We all loved the planet Pluto so much that in the 1930’s Disney even created a cartoon character named after it.  There was much disappointment when on July 14, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft became the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto, and based on observations from his historic journey, scientists discovered that Pluto did not meet the criteria of a planet.  It was reclassified as a dwarf planet.  According to a recent article in Time Magazine, the public has voted that Pluto should remain a planet.  Does a vote based on popular belief make it true?  The outcome of this vote is an example of the difficulty of discarding long-held beliefs about anything.
In education, we love the concept of learning styles and have long held the belief that if students use their preferred style, learning will be increased.  Again, does believing make it so?  Although the use of learning style theory is commonplace in education, credible empirical research supporting this theory is lacking.  Should we re-evaluate our much loved learning strategies?  What is the evidence?  

Cognitive psychologists Pashler et al. set up criteria for evaluating the research on learning styles and conducted a review of the literature.  They searched for studies using empirical methodology in which students were assessed for learning style, randomly assigned to different instructional approaches, and then tested to show improvement based on learning style.  Evidence for the validity of learning style assessments was weak or contradictory.  The authors concluded that “the widespread use of learning style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.”  Recent researchers have confirmed these conclusions (Bishka, 2010: Fridley & Fridley, 2010; Kirshner & Van Merrienboer, 2013; Mayer, 2011; Norman, 2009: Riener & Willingham, 2010; Rohrer & Pashler, 2012; Scott, 2010.)

Pashler did find evidence that students learn in different ways:
  • They have different aptitudes and interests.
  • Prior knowledge and culture greatly affect how students learn.
  • Some students have learning disabilities that affect learning.
  • Optimal teaching methods vary across disciplines.  For example, in teaching writing, a heavy verbal emphasis is required.  For teaching geometry, a heavy visual-spatial emphasis works best. 

Is the concept of learning styles harmful to students?  It places a label on them that may not be valid and can be limiting.  For example, one student reported that he failed a course because his professor did not understand that he was a kinesthetic learner.  Newer findings in neuroscience show that we need to use all the senses in learning, not just the preferred ones.  However, educators have been slow to change their long-held beliefs. 

Basic research on learning and memory has provided new information on how the brain learns and guidelines for effective study techniques.  John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and director of the Brain Center to Applied Learning Research has written a book called Brain Rules that translates scientific findings into practical strategies for learning.  His suggestions are based on peer reviewed journal articles that have been replicated many times. 

Medina has suggested some useful ideas for college students based on brain science:

  • Using all the senses improves learning.  This is called multi-sensory integration.
  • Visual learning is the most powerful.
  • Exercise is good for the brain and boosts brain power.
  • The ability to learn is affected by the emotional environment.  Stress interferes with memory.  A positive learning environment is best.
  • The human brain is multi-faceted and each is unique.  This idea may support multiple intelligences.
  • Better attention equals better learning.  
  • Repeat to remember.  Long-term memory can become more reliable by repeating the information in timed intervals.
  • Sleep well, think well.  It is during sleep that the brain processes material learned during the day and stores it in long-term memory. 
  • Multi-tasking is a myth.  The brain can focus on only one activity at a time.  A person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and the interruptions result in 50% more errors.  
  • We create new neurons and learn new things throughout life.

Conclusions and next steps:
  • Continued empirical research on learning styles needs to be done to confirm or reject current learning style theory.  However, at the current time, there is not enough scientific evidence to continue using learning styles.
  • Colleges and students would be wise to invest scarce resources in materials that have proven results.
  • To maintain credibility, faculty need to be aware of the latest findings in brain research and apply these findings to increase student learning.
  • There is a need to identify learning practices that have experimental support to provide students with effective learning strategies.  
  • Faculty need to reconsider the effect of labeling students as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners since this may limit their ability to learn.
  • Using learning strategies based on brain science furthers the goal of making education an evidence based field.
  • Those who write educational materials need to lead the way in helping students and faculty apply current science to learning.  

Here is a link to my conference materials including handouts and PowerPoint: http://www.collegesuccess1.com/Conferences.htm

My new 7th Edition of College and Career Success has 2 chapters on using brain science to improve learning.  Click this link to view the Table of Contents of the full edition: http://www.collegesuccess1.com/CCS7thEd.html or the concise edition: http://www.collegesuccess1.com/CCS7thEdConcise.htm  

Lemonick, Michael (2014) “The People Have Voted: Pluto is a Planet” from http://time.com/3429938/pluto-planet-vote/

Medina, J., (2008) Brain rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. (Seattle, Washington: Pear Press.) You can find 12 pages of references for the supporting research at: http://www.brainrules.net/pdf/references_all.pdf

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2010) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9, pp. 105-119, retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf

Here are some additional current articles on this topic:
“All You Need to Know about the Learning Styles Myth in Two Minutes”

“Brain Based Learning, Myth versus Reality: Testing Learning Styles and Dual Coding”