Are Learning Styles Enough?
Controversial question, I know.
As I’ve coached hundreds of students over the last eight years, I’ve come to realize that learning styles have their strengths. At one point in my career as an academic coach, I would have certainly argued that learning styles are THE way to help students get in touch with their learning preferences and transform their ability to successfully prep for any test. There are many different ways that children learn and there are many specifically designed programmed made for children to learn from. For example, there is the arrowsmith program for learning that some people really like.
However, I have also realized that they aren’t as effective as coaches and educators think. They are a good tool to increase a student’s motivation to work, but they are also incomplete in regards to helping students study effectively for tests.
Here’s a story…
Several years ago, I was working with a bright, 8th grader named Margot. She was bored out of her mind at school and just didn’t feel like doing her homework or studying for tests. I had her take a multiple intelligences assessment, and we discovered that she is a “kinesthetic” and “interpersonal” learner. She was excited to discover that learning could be more active and fun than she’d realized. Her favorite way to study for science tests became to organize these elaborate game shows, and invite her friends. Boy did they all have a lot of fun, and yes, her grades did go up a little on tests, too.
However, as fun as this learning process was, it was also time-consuming. Although her motivation increased dramatically at the beginning of our coaching, it plummeted later. She didn’t always have the time or inclination to get another game show organized for herself and her friends. Additionally, when the science units began to get harder, the game show didn’t help her as much. They were great for memorizing lots of information, but not so great for helping her sustain attention when the ideas got more difficult and complex. At this point, she needed to sit down and put effort into solving problems. The problem was that this wasn’t nearly as exciting as designing game shows!
“But I don’t WANT to study that way,” she said. “Didn’t we decide that my learning style is kinesthetic and interpersonal? Can’t we just stick with that?”
As a new academic life coach, what I didn’t understand at the time — but I do now, thanks to my recent obsession with neuroscience and learning theory — is that the brain needs a specific set of actions, done in a specific order, to learn difficult material effectively. Simply finding ways to learn that FEEL good aren’t enough. We ALSO need to apply strong learning theory to our study tasks.
I don’t fault learning styles – they are a great tool when used in the right context. However, I now realize that they are not enough. Here are my two biggest takeaways about learning styles and theories:
- Academic Life Coaches should teach learning THEORY as the first line of defense when tackling study skills, not learning STYLES.
- Learning STYLES are helpful when it comes to exploring motivation and giving students ideas for how to study in creative ways. However, they DO foster passive learning if we teach them without the THEORY too.
So if these two conclusions are true, what’s the missing piece? What is the learning theory that we should be sharing with our students? And more importantly — how do we share this information in a way that EMPOWERS students to be self-sufficient, engaged, agile, motivated learners? Get the full answer to these questions right here!