Does learning styles still matters?

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As I See It

BY ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO

In the past, teachers adjusting to learning styles of students was the most effective way of classroom instructions for students to learn. Up to the present, this is still being adhered to by most teachers because they believe it is still the best, but it is being challenged by recent studies and researches.

Madeline Will wrote that teachers still believe in it and other myths about cognition or how students learn in the classrooms. She premised her idea on a new survey conducted despite earlier research saying otherwise.

Cognitive science, which has something to do with cognition or how the students learn in the classroom, “…is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition (in a broad sense) that’s the reason why teachers believe learning styles is still the best.

Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior of students, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology.” This is what the learning styles is anchored on! In fact, my academic manager always reminds me that I need to know my students’ style of learning, so I can connect with them.

Simply put: “Cognitive Science is the interdisciplinary study of cognition in humans, animals, and machines. It encompasses the traditional disciplines of psychology, computer science, neuroscience, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy. The goal of cognitive science is to understand the principles of intelligence with the hope that this will lead to better comprehension of the mind and of learning and to develop intelligent devices.” Applying this to the classroom, we can better understand the learning styles of our students and how to connect with them. The cognitive sciences began as an intellectual movement in the 1950s often referred to as the cognitive revolution which somehow catapulted teachers to make a difference in the lives of students.

Still, more than three-fourths of teachers, according to the cognitive theory, think that people are either right-brained (creative) or left-brained (analytical), and that those designations affect how they learn. And… nearly all teachers endorsed the idea of “learning styles”—meaning that students learn more when their teachers tailor instruction to their individual styles, such as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. The integrated approach in classroom instructions is always geared towards this belief and was always adhered to by teachers in the past… well, up to the present.

According to Ulrich Boser, however, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and a researcher who leads the firm The Learning Agency that conducted the survey, “recent research doesn’t back up these ideas.”

He said, “Prior research has found that of the thousands of articles published on learning styles, most didn’t test the concept in an experimental setting. Just last year, a new study found that students’ self-assessments of their learning styles didn’t correlate to their teachers’ perceptions, which researchers said indicated that the concept is “hit or miss.” And researchers have found that both hemispheres of the brain are involved in almost all cognitive tasks.”

The survey was conducted online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the results are based on the responses of 203 educators where a large majority of the respondents were classroom teachers from across grade levels, while a few dozen were support staff and a handful were administrators.

The survey asked the educators 11 questions related to the science of learning. And the respondents answered fewer than half correctly on average. For example, research says that retrieval practice—actively trying to remember information—is the way to build long-term knowledge, but just 31 percent of respondents said retrieval practice is more effective for learning than re-reading. However, when given a specific classroom scenario, 59 percent of educators correctly endorsed retrieval practice.

And research establishes that “interleaved” practice—or mixing up different kinds of problems or materials—is a more effective way of learning than “blocked” practice, in which learners solve blocks of questions of the same problem type. But when the survey presented a specific classroom scenario with these two concepts, only 20 percent of respondents said interleaved practice is more effective for long-term learning than block learning. When the survey asked respondents about interleaving more generally, 35 percent said it was the more effective strategy.

There were some bright spots in educators’ knowledge, the research found out. For example, about 60 percent of educators correctly responded that three research-supported learning strategies—elaboration, spacing, and metacognition—would be more effective than a strategy shown to be ineffective, regardless of how the question was asked.

Most educators correctly chose elaboration—linking new information to other information—instead of repetition; spacing out practice instead of cramming to promote long-term retention; and the metacognitive strategy of self-explanation (thinking out loud) instead of simply memorizing steps.

The survey also asked respondents to list their top three places to learn about new research and evidence in education. Two-thirds of educators listed conferences, 59 percent said professional development, and 53 percent point to their peers.

Boser said schools should provide accurate information on the science of learning through those channels, in an effort to combat these myths. But it should start in teacher preparation, he said. “Many schools of education don’t embrace the cognitive sciences.” But, since Boser believes “it should start in teacher preparation,” its success is still dependent on the classroom teachers.

I think the study which focuses on general theory has merits of its own and if we have to have a deeper analysis of it, we can deduce that it may also supplement and/or compliment learning styles. That being the case, I think learning styles is still effective way of classroom instructions much so that it can be amplified by the general concepts contained in the research trying to undermine its importance.

In fact, Ruel Manipis, a teacher in San Job Corps said, “understanding our students how they learn is still the best approach… I think!”

Yes, learning styles still matters! The classroom teacher knows best!

(Elpidio R. Estioko was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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