Learning Strategies, Not Styles

One of the most confusing and frustrating episodes in my entire teaching career came with an attempt to do what I thought was a “best practice” for enhancing my students’ learning. I was teaching Strategies for Academic Success, a course designed to help at-risk first-year students develop a strong foundation for their college careers. The textbook I adopted for the course had an entire unit on “learning styles,” and it asked students to complete something which was new to me at the time–the “VARK Inventory.” From this assessment, students would be able to find out what their “learning style” was: Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, or Kinesthetic. Some students, the instructor’s guide told me, would be “multimodal”; that is, share two or (rarely) three styles. But, it said, a student’s strongest learning style should dictate the way they went about their academic business–what study strategies to adopt, what in-class methods they should use to retain material, on and on. I assumed this would be an excellent tool to get my students thinking about themselves as learners, that they would see that learning is multifaceted, and that they could take ownership of discerning what was most effective for them.

Reader, I was wrong. The problems started with the VARK assessment itself. Many of my students got a “kinesthetic” result, and wondered how they were supposed to adopt physical movement as part of their in-class learning in, say, an introductory lecture course. Others got “reading/writing” and wondered how that was different than “visual.” One student was classified as an “aural” learner, which she told me couldn’t be the best way for her to learn because childhood ear infections had damaged her eardrums and made it hard for her to hear. Most of my students, though, got “multimodal” as their result, many of them “tied” between three, and for a few all four, learning styles. Which of these should they use, I was asked. I didn’t know. The instructor manual said this was rare, dammit! I decided to shelve that activity for the day pending further research, and I told my students we’d come back to this discussion of strategies and methods.

In that research, I learned that the idea of “learning styles” was both a pervasive belief (especially in K-12 education) and a highly problematic discourse. Teachers and students liked the way it seemed to explain how students learned best, but critics warned that imprecise assessments were merely producing answers that confirmed what the assessee wanted to hear. There’s a particular attraction to being able to say “this is how I learn,” and tailor everything else around it. The research that argued specific learning styles existed also raised the academic stakes, declaring that there would be tangible differences in a student’s academic performance if forced to use a different learning style, and that curricular and classroom design needed to take this into account. In both K-12 and higher education environments, “learning styles” had become the coin of the realm (thus its appearance in student success textbooks), and students and educators were increasingly prone to seeing it as the dominant paradigm explaining cognition and retention.

The problem, though, is that the research behind the idea of learning styles wasn’t as solid as its boosters suggested. Many of the studies couldn’t be replicated, and those that could didn’t produce the evidence of clear-cut “styles” that defined a particular student’s learning. It seems that we use a variety of different styles and strategies depending upon context and particular course material, for example. Moreover, trying to force ourselves into one style–I’m a kinesthetic learner! All the time!–can do more harm than good by channeling us into ineffective strategies and shutting off options that might be more effective. That’s what my students were running up against when they questioned their VARK inventories: the results didn’t seem to resonate with how they knew they processed and retained information. When I brought this new research to the class, and we discussed the idea of “styles” versus “strategies”–the former as rigid, the latter as a flexible approach to learning–it was one of our best discussions of the semester. Getting students to see how a critical examination of accepted wisdom (even if it sounds really “scientific”) is always a good idea. I wish I hadn’t modeled that for them by bringing a set of untested assumptions into the classroom, but it was worth the embarrassment and temporary frustration to have this much larger “teachable moment.” Since then, I’ve had the chance to be a part of many robust discussions with K-12 teachers and higher education faculty and faculty developers about the issue, and have found the learning styles “neuromyth” to be quite tenacious.

I was reminded of this episode when someone forwarded me a link to an article from last summer about the learning styles myth. Blake Harvard proposes, though, that the best way to counter the pervasiveness of learning styles discourse is to shift the terms of the conversation to “learning strategies.” Harvard’s suggestions for effective, research-tested (across multiple studies, populations, and conditions) will sound familiar to anyone who attended the 2016 Summer Institute with James Lang. Some of the same strategies Lang offers in the “Small Teaching” approach he shared with us are the ones Harvard recommends as well:

Retrieval Practice ,or practice testing, is a form of low-stakes or no-stakes quizzing that attempts to force retrieval of material from one’s memory.  The quizzing can be in many forms and doesn’t even have to match the form of a summative evaluation.  I have written more about how I incorporate retrieval practice in my classroom here and how I use retrieval practice to promote students’ metacognition here.

Distributed Practice, or spaced practice, refers to distributing practice of material over time.  This spacing of practice aids in retention of material much better than cramming.  The amount of spacing depends on the complexity of the task and can range from hours to months.

Interleaved Practice involves shifting the focus of one’s studies among differing topics.  This is in contrast to studying and practicing all of one topic before moving on to a next topic of study.  While this does make studying more difficult, studies have shown far greater retention of material on summative evaluations with this interleaving of material.

These three methodologies provide multiple modes of practice and activity for students, allowing them the opportunity to learn more effectively and more deeply. Seeing this article reaffirmed a couple of things for me. First, being intentional about what strategies I use in my classes pays larger dividends than I usually assume. And second, there are countless examples of faculty here at Grand View employing strategies and methods right along these lines. We have a culture of effective teaching here that provides significant benefits for our students. It’s worth reflecting on that from time to time, especially in the hustle and bustle as we move into a new semester. I’m finding it helpful to revisit these strategies, as well as the rationale behind them, as the new academic year begins. In that spirit, this week’s links will offer you a chance to do the same.

James Lang wrote a good series of articles on “Small Teaching” strategies in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016; his current series on “the distracted classroom” is also a thought-provoking and insightful read.

David Gooblar, writing in Pedagogy Unbound, had an excellent and timely piece recently on the importance of student engagement in the early weeks of the semester.

And finally, Chuck Pearson of Tusculum College wrote a powerful and moving essay on “Empathy and Science Pedagogy” that I highly recommend. Lots to think about for people in any discipline, but the practices he describes here strike me as quite effective for the goals he has.

Don’t forget the first CETL Blackboard Lunch & Learn is this Thursday from 12-12:45. This session will be particularly useful for those who are new to Blackboard and looking for a basic introduction. Bring some lunch and come learn some tips and tricks to help you and your students!

Looking for an answer? A particular resource? Want to talk teaching and learning? Come by the CETL or make an appointment for a consultation!

Be sure to check out the Calendar on this site for a complete listing of CETL events and professional development opportunities.

Finally, I found this video both entertaining and hypnotic:


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