Here is the full transcript and summary of psychology professor Tesia Marshik’s TEDx Talk: Learning Styles & The Importance of Critical Self-Reflection at TEDxUWLaCrosse Conference. Dr. Tesia Marshik is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
There’s a few different versions — actually, many different versions — of learning styles. But probably the most common ones, the one that you’ve heard of, is that some of us are auditory learners, where we learn best by listening to things; and that some of us are more visual learners, where we learn best by seeing things. And that some of us might be more tactile or kinesthetic learners, where we learn best by actually doing things or engaging in physical activities.
How many of you have heard of them before? Well, the good news and bad news: bad news is, if you believe in learning styles, you’re actually wrong. And I’ll explain that in just a minute.
But the good news is that it’s not entirely your fault. This belief in learning styles is incredibly pervasive. It’s so common that few people ever think to even question it, right? It sounds so logical. It sounds so real.
But when put to the test, we found that learning styles don’t exist. And again there are tons of people that believe this. When we survey, for example, students and teachers, we find that something like 90% of them or over 90% of people believe that they have a learning style.
And teachers today — many teachers are still told that part of their job, in order to be effective teachers, is to figure out what their students’ learning styles are, and then to accommodate them for the classroom. There are even a host of companies and organizations out there that support learning styles, and who, for a fee, will train you on how to maximize your potential or that of your students, by addressing learning styles and learning what yours are.
But again, the key is, when put to the test, these learning styles don’t exist, and it doesn’t make a difference. Now I will say that when we survey people, many people say they have preferences. So if I asked you, “How would you like to learn something?” or “How would you like to study?”, many of you might say, “I’d prefer to see it,” or “I’d prefer to hear it,” or “I’d prefer to actually do it.” So that’s true.
But the key is that those preferences don’t actually enhance your learning when we test them in experimental conditions. And there are many different ways to test this, but the basic design is this: We bring in a bunch of different people who have supposedly different learning styles. We teach them in a variety of ways. And then we see if teaching them in one way somehow was better for them or more effective than others.
So for example, let’s say I had a list of words that I wanted you to memorize. In one group I might show you that list of words; I would present the list of words to you. Or in another group, similarly, I might actually show you images of those words. In yet another group or another condition, I might just let you listen to those words and hear them, so you wouldn’t actually see anything, but you would hear someone saying: dog, hose, coat, etc.
Now if learning styles existed, if it was true, we would expect that visual learners, or so-called visual learners, would be able to recall more words when they saw them. So, either when they saw the list or when they saw the actual images. And we would expect that so-called auditory learners would be able to recall more words when they heard them, right?
But again the finding is, learning is actually the same. The number of words that you recall is exactly the same, regardless of how the material is presented to you. Now I know that’s just one example of one particular study, but I’m asking you to trust me that this has been replicated in many different contexts with many different people of all different ages, and tested in slightly different ways with exactly the same results.
In fact, there have been several meta-analysis papers where they’ve looked at all the research on this topic for 40 years, and all of them have concluded the same thing: that there is still no evidence that matching teaching styles to supposed learning styles or students’ preferences actually makes a difference.
But I would encourage you to look up some of this research on your own. In particular, these review articles.
So then how is that possible? I’m sure some of you are wondering, “How does that even make sense?” Because it sounds so good. And there’s a lot of different research on learning and memory to explain this, but one of the main ideas is that most of what we learn in the classroom and most of what our teachers want us to know in particular is stored in terms of meaning, and it’s not tied to one particular sense or one particular sensory mode.
Now, it’s true — just like people have preferences, it’s also true that some of you might have better visual memories or better auditory memories or auditory processing skills compared to other people, and that might be advantageous for certain type of tasks. So for example, if I wanted you to remember: What was the color of the coat on that last slide? Or, How many windows were on that house on the last slide?, then having a really good visual memory would help with that.
Likewise, if I had read you the list of words and I said, “Were they read in a high voice or a low voice?” or, “Which words were read by a woman, and which ones were read by a man?”, then having a really good auditory memory would help with that.