March 5, 2019

Learning Style Assessments: Are They Valuable?

Lydia Winn Samuels
Pigeons in cubby holes

What good are learning style assessments?

Google “learning style quiz” and you’ll find 165 million results. Even if you aren’t familiar with the term, you may have taken a quiz at one point that determined if you were a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic type of learner. Or maybe you found out if you were an impulsive/reflective learner, or a holistic/analytical learner.

Exploring VARK Learning Styles

In 7th grade, I found out I am a visual learner, and I’ll never forget it. I took the VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) learning styles evaluation. VARK is still popular despite mounting evidence that assessments like these aren’t as helpful as once thought.

One report, authored by a team of top researchers in the psychology of learning—Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles)—went to work on the design of these learning style studies, asserting that they lacked the type of robust, randomized designs that would make their findings scientifically credible. They went on to publish their complete paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Wired picked up a similar story in 2015, debunking learning styles as a myth. The Atlantic joined the protest as well, with another piece on the subject. In fact, a quick Google search of “Are learning styles valid?” leads you to an impressive 51 million results across the popular and academic press.

Hearing all these strong dismissals, it led me to wonder how could something as popular as these assessments be so…wrong? Why were we all wasting time on something that didn’t work?

I dug into the VARK assessment--specifically in the teaching materials and strategy guides that went along with these quizzes. I looked back at the most popular learning style assessment materials and saw something interesting:

VARK provided common sense advice in creating better teaching materials for different types of learning styles. While the list below corresponds to teaching visual learners, I think we can agree a well-placed graph can bring a story problem to life.

  1. lecturers who use gestures and picturesque language
  2. pictures, videos, posters, slides
  3. flowcharts
  4. underlining, different colours, highlighters
  5. textbooks with diagrams and pictures
  6. graphs
  7. symbols @, #, & and white space

Then I looked at another quiz, the Matching Familiar Figures Test (MFFT). It’s designed to determine if a learner is “Reflective” or “Impulsive”, cognitively speaking.

Here too, was good common-sense, in the context of supporting “impulsive learners”:

  1. Talk with them about taking their time to think through their answer before they respond.
  2. Encourage them to label new info as they work.
  3. Model the reflective style as a teacher.
  4. Guide students in creating their own plan to reduce impulsivity.
  5. Compliment students when they are more reflective

I began to see that these assessments offered something else: compassion.

Approaching Different Learning Styles Without Judgements

Even if, by definition, they labeled students, the labels were free from the most negative judgments—struggling, disinterested, slow—that sometimes end up on evaluations, and, more commonly, we assign to ourselves when we hit a roadblock at school.

The next generation of learning theory is moving away from these assessments, with good reason: despite their lingering popularity, the science isn’t stacking up in their favor.

And yet, they weren’t useless.

They had a time and place: One of the biggest challenges in dealing with people, in a classroom, or out of it, is that our brains love labels—for others and ourselves—and sometimes those labels aren’t all that great.

For every time I thought “I’m awesome at math!” or “Ms. Brennan is nice!”, I also had a thought like “I’m just not athletic.” or “There is nothing in this class that applies to me.”

Learning styles assessments gave us better labels—instead of “math is too hard,” I can say, “I just needed more visuals, or a quieter environment”.

That’s language that gives power back to teachers and students, and set us up to springboard into a future where we’re continually looking for new ways to reach every single student.

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