Here is the full transcript 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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection by Tesia Marshik at TEDxUWLaCrosse
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.
But those aren’t typically the kinds of questions that teachers are asking you to remember, or the things that teachers want you to learn in the classroom.
Mostly of what you’re learning in the classroom is much more conceptual, or meaning based. It’s not just what something looks like or what something sounds like.
And by the way, this finding, this whole idea, also helps to explain why simple rehearsal strategies, like rereading your notes or just rewriting your notes, even though they’re very commonly used strategies, they tend to be not very effective, because rereading your notes or rewriting your notes doesn’t necessarily help you understand the material.
In order to retain information, we have to organize it in a way that’s meaningful. We have to make connections to it, connecting it to our experiences or coming up with our own examples or thinking of how we’re learning something in one class, and how that relates to what else we know. That’s what helps us remember it.
Now, again there’s a lot of research to support this idea that most of what we learn is stored in terms of meaning, and not according to visual images or auditory sounds. But some of the best, most relevant research comes from these classic studies that were done in the 70s.
Now, Chase and Simon, they were interested in chess players’ abilities to recall pictures of chessboard games in progress. So what they would do is they would show players an image of a game in progress for a short time — typically, only five seconds or so — and then it would disappear. And then they would ask the players to recall where were all the pictures, where were all the pieces in that picture.
And what they found was a big difference between novice players, or beginner players, and experts. Beginner players, when asked to recall where the pieces were, they could only remember about four pieces. Experts, on the other hand, could actually identify almost all of them — over 20 of them, they could correctly identify on the next game board when asked to recall these.
Now, again, they were interested in knowing: Why is this difference? Why do we see this difference between beginners and experts? And it wasn’t because, like you might be thinking, that the experts had better visual memories than the beginners. It was because the experts had more experience playing chess, and more knowledge. In other words, this game board was more meaningful to them. They could see the strategy involved. They could imagine what was happening and why the players had their pieces positioned the way they did.
And to further support this idea, they did a follow-up study. In the follow-up study, they showed the chess players pictures of randomly arranged chessboards. That’s this picture here. Now to you or I, or to a beginner chess player, these might look basically the same. I mean, yeah, the pieces are in different places, but for the most part, they might be equally difficult to remember.
To an expert, though, we found big differences when presented with a randomly configured board. Once it was random, experts no longer had an advantage in remembering pieces, because it wasn’t meaningful to them. But because there’s no meaningful arrangement in the second piece, they lost that advantage, which again, it just further evidence that we store information in terms of meaning, and not according to a sensory mode.
And this basic finding, by the way, has been extended to other contexts, everything from chess to basketball, to computer programming and to dance. We store information in terms of meaning and not limited to particular sensory modes.
So that’s the first reason.
Another reason why this learning-styles theory doesn’t pan out is that the best way to teach something or to learn something really depends on what it is you want to learn. It depends on the content itself.
Now, if I wanted you, for example, to know what a bunch of different songbirds looked like, the best way to teach you that is to let you look at pictures of those songbirds, or let you see them in real life. But note that that’s true for everybody, that’s not true just because you’re a visual learner. That’s because looking at them is what I’m asking you to do, is to remember what they look like.
On the other hand, if I wanted you to remember what they sounded like or be able to distinguish between different songs of different songbirds, then letting you hear them would be the best way. But again, that applies to everybody. Just like if I wanted you to know what different flowers smell like. The best way to teach you that is to let you experience those flowers by smelling them. But that doesn’t mean you’re an olfactory learner, or that you learn everything better through smelling. I mean, take a minute to imagine what that would look like in a math class or an anatomy class or a physics class.
And as absurd as that sounds, it’s really important to remember that the same problems, the same criticisms apply whether we’re talking about so-called olfactory learners or whether we’re talking about auditory learners or visual learners or even kinesthetic learners. The last three might seem more palatable or more reasonable, but the same issues apply. It really depends on what I’m asking you to learn, the best way to teach it.
But that also brings me to another point, and that’s this idea that many things can be taught using multiple senses. So it’s not just limited to one, for example.
So, say I wanted you to learn the game of football. Probably the best way to teach you football is to get you out there and play football, to actually practice and having that physical experience playing. But you would also probably benefit from being able to watch a football game, or being able to look at schematics or drawings of the different formations and different positions, just like you’d probably also benefit from hearing coaching or hearing feedback as you’re playing. You’re getting the kinesthetic experience, the visual and the auditory.
Similarly, if a music teacher wanted you to know the different parts of a symphony orchestra, then going to an orchestra and listening to one would be beneficial. But it would also add to the experience if you had the capability to touch the instruments, or maybe to learn how to play them, or to actually watch one live.
Again, it’s not that different modes make it meaningful to different people based on their learning style. It’s not like, oh, the visual learners are only going to learn by seeing it. It’s because incorporating multiple sensory experiences into one lesson makes it more meaningful.
So then you might be wondering: Why does this myth persist? And there’s a few different explanations. And the first one is quite simply that everybody believes it. It’s so common that you never even think to question it. How could so many people be wrong? If so many people believe it, how is it possible that it’s wrong?
But as you know, just because something is commonly believed doesn’t necessarily make it true. Remember, just as an example, at one point we used to think that the Earth was the center of the universe, until scientists like Copernicus and Galileo proved us otherwise.
Likewise, there was a time in which some people actually believed or were worried that polio might be caused by ice cream, which we now know is nonsense. And, unfortunately, even today one unfortunate myth that still persists is this idea that vaccines cause autism, despite the lack of any scientific evidence.
Just because a lot of people believe it, doesn’t make it true. And that might seem really obvious to you, but again, the key idea is that when something’s so pervasive it doesn’t even occur to people to challenge it. We need to be willing to critically reflect on beliefs, even if they’re commonly believed.
Another reason why this persists is, quite frankly, the idea of learning styles is sexy. It sounds good, it feels good. Saying people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different. And differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom. But me saying that learning styles don’t exist, I’m not saying people are the same. People do differ in many important ways. Learning styles just isn’t one of them.
And just because some ideas sound really good, just because we really want something to be true, doesn’t make it so. We have to remember that, even when we’re talking about something as appealing as Santa Claus, unicorns, Bigfoot or learning styles.
Last but not least, another reason why this belief persists is something called “confirmation bias.” And this is this natural tendency that we have as humans to want to be right. People don’t like to be right — don’t like to be wrong, I should say.
So when people have this belief, or any belief, we tend to look for information that fits our beliefs, and we ignore information that doesn’t fit our beliefs. We don’t really very frequently try to prove ourselves wrong. More often than not, we try to prove ourselves right. We look for evidence to support whatever it is that we think. And sometimes this is deliberate. Sometimes this bias is very deliberate.
So you all know that person who deliberately closes their eyes or plugs their ears and says, “La, la, la, I’m not listening, I don’t want to hear that,” and turns their back. More often than not, this is unintentional. This is subconscious. We don’t even realize that we’re doing it.
How many of you, for example, have ever been thinking of someone, only to have them call or text you? Or how many of you have experienced déjà vu, or had a dream, only to have it come true? And you start to think, “Whoa,” I’ve got something going on here, some extra-sensory perception, telepathic powers.”
Again, I’m sorry to say: you don’t. That’s been studied frequently, too, and there’s no evidence to suggest that we have these telecommunicative powers to talk to each other. But the problem is that we notice every time it happens. We notice every time we’re thinking of someone and they call us because it’s a cool coincidence; it’s kind of exciting. We notice when we have that moment of déjà vu. We don’t notice all the times that we’re thinking of someone and they don’t call us. Or we don’t really think about all the dreams we’ve had that don’t come true.
It’s just like that other common belief that full moons are somehow associated with crazy behavior or increases in emergency room visits. This has also been something that people have scientifically studied, and again despite common belief, there’s no significant correlation there between full moons and emergency room visits.
So now you might be wondering, “Why does it matter? Who cares?” “Yeah, learning styles don’t exist,” — I hope you’re buying that by now — “I see why it’s still so common, but who cares? Why not believe in learning styles?” And I would argue there’s at least two important reasons why we need to stop believing this and stop spreading this idea that people have learning styles.
The first one is that we’re wasting valuable time and resources — valuable educational resources. Teachers already have a momentous task of accommodating students from all different backgrounds, of different ability levels, different disabilities in their classroom, different interests and motivations. That’s not easy. The whole fact that learning styles don’t matter, to some extent, should be a relief, because it’s one less thing that teachers have to worry about. But at the very least, we can’t afford to be wasting our time and resources trying to promote learning styles, when there’s no evidence that it actually helps learning — especially when there are research-supported strategies, things that we know we can do, that actually do impact learning. So that’s the first reason.
The second reason is this whole idea that labeling yourself as a learner or labeling a student as a learner, cannot only be misleading, but it can be dangerous. If I as a teacher think that you have a particular learning style or that you only learn in one way, that might prevent me from trying other strategies that could otherwise help you learn the information better.
Likewise, if you, as the student, believe that you have a particular learning style, that could cause you to shut down or lose interest when a teacher isn’t teaching in a way that’s consistent with your preferred style. And that might actually perpetuate your failure — but it’s not because you couldn’t learn that way, it’s because you gave up and you stopped trying.
This whole idea that learning styles don’t exist, in many ways, should be further good news, because it means that all of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways — we are not as limited as sometimes we think we are.
So in conclusion, when I teach about this topic in my classes, and even when I talk to other professionals and colleagues, the first reaction I get is usually a little a bit of surprise — surprise that something so common and so ubiquitous isn’t actually true. But that’s oftentimes followed by a little bit of defensiveness. And I’m sure there are some of you out there right now thinking, “OK, I hear what she’s saying. I don’t really care, though. I know how I learn; I know that I still have a learning style.”
People don’t like to be wrong, and belief change is really hard, especially when it’s a belief that you’ve held for a really long time, or one that’s essential to your identity. But again, it’s really important that we’re willing to let our guard down sometimes and to challenge our beliefs, and to truly consider other perspectives or different ideas.
How often do we get defensive when we hear information or hear ideas that we don’t like to hear, or that go against our beliefs? How often do we surround ourselves intentionally with like-minded people, just so we don’t have to face different perspectives? And in a day and age when information is more readily accessible than ever before, how often do our Google searches take us to “show me I’m right.com,” rather than unbiased evidence?