September 7, 2010

"Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are 'visual learners' and others are auditory; some are 'left-brain' students, others 'right-brain.'"

It's junk science.

But there is good science to support the notion that you should study in multiple locations:
The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.
More scientifically tested study tips at the link.


HT said...

"It's junk science" but "it's good science?"

Pogo said...

"...the notion that children have specific learning styles ...It's junk science."

Nevertheless, Minnesota is installing hundreds of SMART Boards in grade schools and high schools at $8000 apiece to address 'specific learning styles'.

Yes, they are even using them in kindergartens.

Paddy O said...

Interesting. I've intuitively followed this for a long time. I have to move around every couple of hours if I'm studying. When I do, I somehow find that what I thought wa a tired, full brain suddenly is motivated for more study.

It also always helps if I'm either outside or with an outside view of nature. People bother me, but a quiet outdoor scene has enough variety to keep me at just the right amount of focus enhancing distraction.

Unorthodox Modernity said...

May not actually be true that learning styles don't exist - that's up in the air, and depends in part by what is meant by learning styles. What is true is that teaching content in one mode or another to address one or another learning style is likely useless.

So if you have trouble processing visual-spatial input (a map, for example) it's not going to help you to learn the geography of a region verbally. you're just going to have to study a lot longer and harder than someone for whom this comes more easily (and you'll still probably do worse).

MadisonMan said...

The local tech college where I teach part-time is all about learning styles in helping promote Learner Success. As a teacher, I think it's an interesting exercise to figure out how to present material for various learning styles. In practice, I think a teacher falls back on what they are most comfortable with.

Why pigeon-hole a student into a specific learning type? Isn't that just giving them one more excuse in case they fail?

Ann Althouse said...

@HT Read the post again... in a different location.

Scott M said...

Can't they just invent the pill that makes us all savants (without the embarrassing social side effects) and be done with it?

Jim Hu said...

From the abstract of the linked review:

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.
emph added

Lem said...

I used to have a Toshiba laptop that used to flash me to remember to change positions ;)

(tough crowd)

t-man said...

Slightly OT -

Cockroach Brains May Be a Source of Antibiotics, Research Says

So Jeremy may be useful after all.

Pogo said...


Quaestor said...

Scott M wrote "Can't they just invent the pill that makes us all savants...?"

Be careful what you wish for. Time was when a savant was a Voltaire, a Franklin, an Einstein. But today the term refers to people who were accurately (albeit insensitively) called idiots, as in idiot savant. Today, in the name of accuracy (not all idiot savants are technically idiots) the doyens of development psychology have poisoned the language just as they have done with the term education.

Education used to be a vocation, a calling. One acquired professional knowledge in a field of study and then imparted that knowledge to others. Today one studies education as a professional field in and of itself.

If education is a profession, then it is one which rests on a fatally flawed foundation.

Scott M said...

But today the term refers to people who were accurately (albeit insensitively) called idiots, as in idiot savant.

Hence the filter for embarrassing social downsides. I know next to nothing about research into the brain/mind, but it's always struck me that it's highly unlikely for the brain to be damaged "better" than ordinary brains. I know the whole "we only use 10%" is inaccurate at best, but it just seems to me that if a single human brain is capable of some of the idiot savant feats, they should be attainable, or nearly so.

Otherwise, we're all just sims on someone's computer game where, during character creation, you can ramp up math to 100%, but it's a 1:1 point exchange with dexterity and you end up with cork on your cutlery and a full time helmet.

Jack Wayne said...

The thing that really works for me is to read the material aloud while studying.

rhhardin said...

The new science is called ordo locorum.

Richard Dolan said...

Even the good science has an element of junk to it: "The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious."

The brain doesn't study anything; and it doesn't pick and choose associations, subtle or otherwise. People do those things. Folks who write stories like this, and sometimes the scientists doing the experiments, can't seem to shake the Cartesian 'little man' picture of the brain, no matter how many times it is debunked. At the same time, they embrace a contradictory picture of the brain as a computer, responding in strict cause-and-effect manner to chemical/eletronic stimuli -- the 'little man', it seems, is now an automaton.

The conclusion that a student absorbs information better by changing the scenery, moving around, being active, sounds right. But I'm skeptical of the explanation for the observed effect, and made more skeptical by the conceptual confusion that seems to be at the explanation's core.

michael farris said...

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my favorite places to study was the campus bowling alley.

Having to concentrate past the noise (including awful local rock station played loud enough to be heard over the bowling sounds) and the constant small diversions and interesting behaviors of the clients provided lots of variety.

deborah said...

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.
- Winston Churchill.

deborah said...

"The conclusion that a student absorbs information better by changing the scenery, moving around, being active, sounds right. But I'm skeptical of the explanation for the observed effect, and made more skeptical by the conceptual confusion that seems to be at the explanation's core."

I remember learning in Psych 101 that studying in the place you were going to take the test would aid memory, which always made sense to me. (Not that I did it.)

deborah said...

"Back in my undergraduate days, one of my favorite places to study was the campus bowling alley."

Heh. Reminds me of a good story from a John R. Powers book. I think it was 'The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God.'

At his parochial high school, his teacher, a catholic brother, would continually bounce a basketball while they were learning to type, and progressively become more annoying as the semester wore on...bouncing it on the wall, etc.

Hagar said...

I can remember a drawing or read down the page of a book I have read, but I cannot quote what you said 5 minutes ago.

My boss can remember a conversation verbatim for months, and he can remember the landscape he drove through last week and catch things he did not see then, but he cannot remember the details on a drawing or catch misspellings in a letter very well.

There are too many people with study grants making up theories that they then teach to gullible students as "science."

c3 said...

First of all; to comment on learning styles in an article about study habits is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison.

Second, as Jim Hu has pointed out the abstract didn't conclude learning styles was "junk science" but that some of the limited studies contradicted the "theory" and that generally there a few well designed studies out there to confirm or deny the hypothesis.

This is vaguely reminiscent of your post on MBTI. suggesting that a lack of rigorous research therefore contradicts the theory is in itself a "junk" application of the nature of scientific inquiry.

Nena's 99 Luftballons Song said...

Much of classroom study in yesteryears was lecture, chalkboard, pen and paper. And many students earned a high school diploma. With the creation of the computer and programs, we now have students engaged in learning that appeals to learning styles, mostly visual and auditory. Repetition of concepts can occur as teachers introduce a concept via traditional methods and then train the students via a medley of activities and computer work. Retention has increased and students are attending college. Lifelong learning has been enhanced via computer programs with visual and auditory interactive features and via conference trainers who appeal to learning styles. We're all children at heart who love to be entertained.

Unorthodox Modernity said...


No - the evidence is very, very clear that teaching to a particular learning style does not do any good. The ambiguity is in whether people even HAVE learning styles. And that might depend on which of the myriad conceptualizations of learning styles you use, along with other factors.

A simple but accurate explanation by one of the people mentioned in the article can be seen here:

chuckR said...

Studying vocabulary in different backgrounds? Why not just use a memory palace? Memorization is pretty low level learning.

Hagar said...

Public school teaching should be down the middle of the class and allow as much room for individual variability as possible.

At that, classes in the aggregate also differ widely, and teachers should be warned they will have to use their native ingenuity to cope with the unexpected.

There is way too much theorizing and classifiaction going on.

Tex said...

By unfortunate coincidence, my daughter's teacher declared her to be an "auditory learner" today based on responses to a survey given to students on the first day of class.

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Disturbing, indeed.

Joe said...

People DO have different learning styles, but it's not as predictive as often portrayed nor is it clear how to leverage this beyond distinguishing between people who do better with books/lectures and those who do better hands-on (like me.)

One thing that bugs me is that this study and article equate memorization with learning; a common mistake. A relative can recite just about anything they've read and can memorize stuff in one pass. She can recite a recipe book to you, but can't cook any of them.

traditionalguy said...

What about kinesthenic learners? Personally, I can't tell my left brain from my right brain.

The Crack Emcee said...

How many times must I tell you:

The Dim Bulbs Weren't Bringing Enlightenment

sonicfrog said...

When I was getting the first of my two teaching credentials, I had one professor who was very much in love with pedagogy / education theory. After one class session, where he re-emphasized the quality and importance of some of his favorite theories, we were walking to our cars, which were parked next to each other. I tool the time to ask a question: "If all this theory is so important, and if it accurately describes the way we learn, then why aren't schools and education better than they were twenty years ago?". He was honest and said he didn't know.

I was glad that he didn't go back to the fall-back automated response of so many educators "there's not enough money".

c3 said...

The ambiguity is in whether people even HAVE learning styles.

Yes, that was my point, poorly worded.

Freeman Hunt said...

I am enjoying these don't-box-yourself-in junk science posts.

When I was in high school we were encouraged to type ourselves by all sorts of systems. I think created false expectations, artificial boundaries, and self-fulfilling prophecies. It was damaging.

save_the_rustbelt said...

After almost 40 years in education, management and consulting the one bit of psycho-babble I absolutely believe is the left-right brain theory.

If you doubt it spend large amounts of time with accountants (extreme left) and creative entrepreneurs (extreme right). Totally different.

A.W. said...

Sorry, but this supposedly “scientific” study is itself crap. The very existence of learning disabilities mean that at least SOME people are going to have to learn differently. And yes, there is such a thing as being right brained or left brained.

For instance, I knew a guy in law school who had some kind of birth defect. I read the diagnosis, but I still don’t fully get it. But one of the problems it spawned was that although his right brain was there, it literally was doing nothing for him. And when he explained that to me, it made a whole lot about him make sense. For instance, I used to have an answering machine that would play a classical music song as it wound the tape (which dates the story, I know). So one day I come home from school to hear him on the message, saying, “that music was so nice, I never wanted it to end.” Classical music SPOKE to him the way, say, Nirvana speaks to me and a lot of people around my age.

And when he explained that about his right brain, I suddenly understood why. People forget that classical actually meant originally, more or less, greek and roman. Now today we use it to more generically indicate quality, so we have something called “classic rock” and “classic movies” and even “new classics.” But the classical music was an attempt to make Greek and Roman music. The problem was we had no idea what greek and roman music sounded like. We have their music sheets but no way to understand what the notations mean. So, the classical composers reasoned, since the Greeks and romans were really logical, their music would probably be math-based, so their reimaging of it would also be math based. Which is stupid, when you think about it. So classical music was dominated by that mode. I think Wagner and the other romantics that, let’s face it don’t fit that mold. And of course Nirvana and most other rock and roll is VERY much in the non-numerical music camp.

So that is why having your kid listen to classical music helps them in math later on. You are organizing their brains to be more left brained. And that is why my friend just loves classical.

People really can think in ways that are fundamentally different from each other, and yes even learn in different ways. Denying that reality will only harm students.