Saturday, October 01, 2011

Learning Styles

In a recent Higher Ed piece Robert J. Sternberg claimed that Learning Styles exist.
When I received my first test score – a 3 out of 10 -- in college introductory psychology, I realized that I had some hard slogging ahead, especially after the professor told me that "there is a famous Sternberg in psychology and it is obvious there won’t be another one." I eventually pulled a C in the course, which the professor referred to as a "gift." That professor was probably as surprised as I was when I earned an A in his upper-level course, and I certainly was grateful to him when, as chair of the search committee, he hired me back to my alma mater (Yale University) as an assistant professor, where I would remain as a professor for 30 years. My instructor probably wondered, as did I, how I could have done so poorly in the introductory course and so much better in the upper-level course.

There may have been multiple contributing causes to the difference in performance, but one was almost certainly a difference in the styles of learning and thinking that were rewarded in the two courses. The lower-level course was pretty much a straight, memorize-the-book kind of course, whereas the upper-level course was one that encouraged students to formulate their own research studies and to analyze the research studies of others.

Psychologists and educators differ as to whether they believe in the existence of different styles of learning and thinking. Harold Pashler and his colleagues have claimed that the evidence for their existence is weak, but a number of scholars, whose work is summarized in a 2006 book I wrote with Li-fang Zhang entitled The Nature of Intellectual Styles, and in a forthcoming edited Handbook of Intellectual Styles, have provided what we believe to be compelling evidence for the existence and importance of diverse styles of learning and thinking. I have often felt that anyone who has raised two or more children will be aware, at an experiential level, that children learn and think in different ways.
I think he is confused about learning styles versus skills. Or at least he isn’t articulating it as clearly as I would like. I still like Willingham's short video on this. 

Let me offer an analogy.

No one says we have metabolic styles. Some people have higher metabolisms, and others lower. Should one want to lose weight, it may be easier for some then others, as some may have better self-control over food intake, and other may have better ability to commit to an exercise regime. But we wouldn’t say they have different metabolic styles. The metabolic process is the same.

Learning styles confuse the issues. Yes people have different skills, some have better ability to write, others do math, and others have better memories. I never forget a face, but have lots of trouble remembering names. That’s a skill, but that doesn’t mean I’m a visual learner. The cognitive process is the same in everybody, even if it works better, or faster in some than others, and even if its performance varies by task. The process is the same.

Assessing their “learning” involves requiring them to use their skills and their cognitive process. But we often assess the skill more than the cognitive process that goes on. Much like the metabolic explanation, it would be akin to asking them to run for 30 minutes as a demonstration of the metabolic improvement. Some students are better runners than others, even though there is a correlation between running and metabolism - as in increasing running, should increase metabolism – their metabolic improvement would be poorly measured by the distance they run in 30 minutes.

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