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Learning styles theory questioned by psychologists

August 31, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Are you a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner?

Maybe you're all of the above, according to a recent study by psychologists, who have critiqued the popular learning styles theory.

NPR had an article on the study this week. The article quotes Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, who found no evidence that tailoring teaching methods to a particular learning style makes any difference in how well students learn. Dan Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, said the way people learn is more similar than different. Psychologists are studying which teaching methods work best with all students.

This is interesting, particularly as teachers head back to school, because for years teaching inservices have focused on the different learning styles. In recent years teachers were advised to tailor their teaching methods in ways that will reach all the students in a classroom with different learning styles. If a teacher is teaching reading, he or she might be advised to use an approach like having students trace a letter in a sandbox or walk in that pattern on the floor to reach kinesthetic or tactile learners, for instance, in addition to the more traditional teaching methods.

When I covered those teacher workshops, I sometimes tried to make out which kind of learner I am and could never decide if I am an auditory or visual learner. I know I retain information better when I can both see it and hear it. Physical education was my least favorite class, so I decided I am probably not a kinesthetic learner. On the other hand, the only way I managed to pass geology in college was to take a textbook and write out the chapters I was being tested on, by hand, over and over and over again. Is that auditory, visual or kinesthetic learning or all three at once?

I don't know if this study takes into account what works best with kids who have learning disabilities, whom I would assume might learn better using tactics that work with kinesthetic learners or visual learners. I'd also be curious to know what the psychologists make of another popular teaching theory, the one of "different intelligences."

Regardless of study results, teachers should probably use a variety of approaches in the classroom to keep kids interested. That's just good teaching. However, it does sound like any of these approaches will work pretty well for most kids in the classroom.


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