Just semantics? Subtle but important misunderstandings about learning styles, modalities, and preferences

This is a guest blog from Yana Weinstein, Assistant Professor at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, one of the masterminds behind the wonderful Learning Scientists site.

Scientists get quite attached to terms that describe the constructs they are studying. This is because you can’t measure something until you’ve defined what you think it is – and for convenience – labelled it. The naming process itself is fairly arbitrary. A researcher discovers an effect or proposes a process, and if it catches on and further research confirms the construct’s importance, the name might stick.

Once a construct is identified and named, hypotheses about it can be formed and tested. Data can be used to decide whether a construct needs to be further divided into multiple constructs. These divisions and additions of new constructs are methodical and data-driven, even when the labels themselves are arbitrary.

Take, for example, the durations of different types of memory. Why do we talk about short-term memory and long-term memory, but never about medium-term memory? And why do we get so upset when people use the term “short-term memory” in relation to something that happened earlier that day instead of less than 30 seconds ago?

Because studies have shown again and again that there are two distinct mechanisms: short-term (which is a constantly refreshing moving window limited to 30 seconds), and long-term. A memory that is a year old and another one that’s only 30 minutes old are both decaying in exactly the same way, according to their respective forgetting curves, whereas new information is constantly passing in and out of short-term memory; we haven’t found any data to suggest the need for medium or extra-long-term memory. When people incorrectly use the expression “short-term memory loss”, it’s really not just semantics.

It doesn’t really help our case that often one set of researchers will come up with a term, while at the same time another group will be studying the same construct under a different term. Eventually, either one will dominate, or we are stuck with the awkwardness of having to use both terms to indicate that they do, in fact, describe the same construct (direct/explicit/declarative vs. indirect/implicit/procedural memory springs to mind).

So, how does this apply to learning styles? Some people misunderstood my envelope because I used the words “preferences” and “modalities” seemingly interchangeably. Some readers actually thought that I was merely replacing the now controversial word “styles” with two more neutral words and hoping that this would allow the learning styles theory to live on! Hence, the “it’s just semantics” comments from some who thought I was substituting in these words so that we could all continue tailoring our teaching to different types of students without seeming uninformed.

But of course, I wasn’t saying that at all. I chose the words “preferences” and “modalities” carefully and intentionally. And in the misunderstandings, I think we begin to see the real reason why teachers hold on to this myth.

1.People have preferences for how they learn.

Why did I say preferences, and what do I mean? I said “preferences” because if you give people a questionnaire, they can indeed quite reliably report whether they prefer to learn visually, kinesthetically, or with dark chocolate (if you asked them). Whether this preference actually leads to more learning than any other method, though, is an empirical question that has a complicated answer (see below).

2.All people learn better when more senses are engaged.

This was already explained by David in his previous post and should be fairly uncontroversial. The word “senses” here can be matched directly with “modalities”, where “senses” are features of the learner, whereas “modalities” are features of the materials.

3.Some people need additional modalities more than other people.

This is where things get really tricky and awkward. Essentially, at its core what this is saying is that some students are smarter than others. Some will just “get” it, no matter how dull and unvaried your teaching style is. They could probably just study a textbook alone and get an A. Then there are other students, who need a lot more scaffolding. The pictures, the videos, the Lego models all help. But no-one wants to say, “My son is a bit thick and doesn’t really like to sit still and read, so he needs to watch a video before he can understand anything”. Saying, “My son has a visual learning style” is much more palatable.

4.No one suffers from the addition of a modality that’s not their favourite.

And here’s the final nail in the coffin. If the student who understood a concept just from reading a difficult text book is made to watch the more fun and entertaining video, they’re not going to have any trouble understanding it. They don’t have some kind of special “dull text” learning style. They just don’t need the additional modalities in order to understand and learn.

So what’s the take-away? Go ahead and include as many different modalities as you see fit. This will probably result in more students understanding and learning, although it might waste the time of some. But you definitely shouldn’t waste time pandering to individual students’ preferences: just teach well for all.

And this is the crux of why the learning styles myth won’t die: because some things that are done in the name of it are actually good teaching practices that are also supported by real scientific evidence about how all students learn.

13 Responses to Just semantics? Subtle but important misunderstandings about learning styles, modalities, and preferences

  1. Kapitza says:

    Thanks for this. Very interesting topic.

    I was wondering whether some students just need more explaination than others to grasp certain concepts (rather than needing more modalities), and providing explanation through differing modalities happens to be an efficient way of doing this?

    • Yes, and actually, that raises another excellent point that I didn’t go into.

      Sometimes, the illusion of a learning style can occur when an explanation in one modality comes after another. If half the class got it right away, and then some more students got it with the additional modality, it is intuitively tempting to infer that the addition of that specific modality is what got through to them.

      To test the hypothesis, however, you would need to reverse the order of the modalities, and evidence would come from a reversal in terms of which students understood the explanation in the first (previously second) modality – and there is no such evidence in the literature.

  2. Brian says:

    “And here’s the final nail in the coffin. If the student who understood a concept just from reading a difficult text book is made to watch the more fun and entertaining video, they’re not going to have any trouble understanding it”

    I am really not sure I understood this. Is the write suggesting that one can learn this concept from either a video (fun and entertaining simply illuminates motives) or textbook. If so and the learner simply prefers a video (this describes me) why would the textbook be superior or chosen.

    I wasn’t sure what the point of the discussion of modalities and senses was. At all.

    “People have preferences for how they learn”, and preferences may affect motivations. Peopl watch the movie when they gave up on the book after the first 10 mins. I may learn 20 % less when I watched the movie but I was never going to read more than 20% of the book. Which is more effective?

    I agree that definitions and understandings can be important, and I am not sure this post has moved me any closer to reality.

    It has always been clear that when Dan Willingham talks about Learning Styles and research he is very precise in his descriptions and when describing research findings. Dan uses examples such as asking for directions for which the learning effectiveness of a long string of directions is less effective thatn drawing a picture. Much learning is not however of this nature.

    I can read David Didau’s blog or I can watch a video of him explaining an issue. I tend to prefer the latter. I love podcasts. Listening to someone speak text or reading text is a real choice for me.

    I feel that focusing on the subtleties of what people say and the language they use is often pointless, unless they are scientists explaining reasearch they have carried out. I am very happy for people to witter on about debunking learning preferences / styles while I listen to my podcasts and watch Harvard professors giving lectures, while others read transcripts. I feel it is their time they are wasting so what is the problem.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I am very happy for people to witter on about debunking learning preferences / styles while I listen to my podcasts and watch Harvard professors giving lectures, while others read transcripts.

      Sure. But you have no proof that your method works better, even for you. Only that you prefer it.

      I’m pretty sure that if you had to learn to code HTML, for example, that you would quickly move from your preferred aural-only to a mix containing a lot of text. Between a podcast and a text, you would learn more from a text in that case. Teaching to your “preferred” learning style would be a waste of time.

    • Josh says:

      “If the student who understood a concept just from reading a difficult text book is made to watch the more fun and entertaining video, they’re not going to have any trouble understanding it.”

      Yes, the author is saying that this particular student could learn from either style. The point is that those individuals who need the entertaining visual accompaniment aren’t visual learners, they’re just not as competent at learning as the individual who doesn’t need information delivered in a more dynamic fashion to learn it.

      That isn’t to disparage the preference. If you PREFER to watch videos, then by all means you should watch videos. But NEEDING to watch videos isn’t a ‘learning style’, it suggests a need for extra modalities which in turn suggests that the individual simply isn’t as good at learning.

      I’ll repeat, for clarity and comprehension, that this doesn’t mean that those who PREFER visual learning are poorer learners. We’re talking specifically about those who seem to have trouble learning WITHOUT extra modalities. If you can learn perfectly well from a difficult text and simply prefer a more engaging format you’re perfectly normal and in good company.

      • Yes, you ARE saying that the person who feels they learn better from a video is not as “smart” or doesn’t “learn as easily” as someone who learns from reading.

        Why is reading assumed the be the “best” or “default” learning style?

        I’m with Brian, even though my preference is the opposite of his. I hate podcasts and feel like they waste my time. That doesn’t mean I can’t understand that he feels the same way about text. And I don’t think it means he doesn’t “learn” as well as I do.

        My attention tends to fail me when the modality is audio. And with both audio and visual, my concentration is on the video and I can’t concentrate on the audio. Heck, I need closed captions to watch movies or I miss half the dialogue. It’s ridiculous to say that everyone should learn everything in the same way. Teachers tend to think everyone should learn the same way that works best for them, but not everyone is the same.

        Chester also has a point in that the best modality sometimes depends on the material to be learned. He uses the example of coding but other materials might be better learned through visual demonstration. The nature of what is to be learned can be key.

        So teachers need to first determine what modality would be best for most people according to the nature of the knowledge, skills, and/or concepts to be taught, but good teaching should always employ as many modalities as possible to reach as many students as possible.

        I’m not saying that you should necessarily target certain modalities for certain students. For one thing, it’s usually just not feasible with the average size class, though with very small classes you could. And using various modalities will not hurt anyone, and it’s good to have practice using modalities that aren’t your preference.

        But you can’t assume your students are going to learn the same way you do, and you have to use as many modalities as possible, and you can’t assume there’s something “wrong” with a student because they don’t learn the way you do or the way you think they should.

        • Josh says:

          “Yes, you ARE saying that the person who feels they learn better from a video is not as “smart” or doesn’t “learn as easily” as someone who learns from reading.

          Why is reading assumed the be the “best” or “default” learning style?”

          I’m not saying that the person who feels they learn better from a video is not as “smart”. There’s a very clear distinction between NEEDS and PREFERENCES. Which should be obvious. The person who prefers to not drive at night simply has a preference. The person who needs to not drive at night probably has a night-vision problem. The person who prefers to have an alcoholic drink at dinner simply has a preference. The person who needs to have an alcoholic drink at dinner is likely an alcoholic.

          There shouldn’t be anything controversial about that.

          As for reading being the best learning style, it’s not. The one that best facilitates learning is. But that’s a separate conversation. The point about reading is that it requires more focused attention, more abstract/symbolic/represenational thinking, and to that extent more “smarts” (at least for most information/material).

          Being able to visualize, from abstract characters on a page, a visual engineering process, requires greater cognitive skill than SEEING it demonstrated visually. Hence the assertion that the person who understands the concept from reading without the visual aid is a better learner.

          Now, that’s a generalization. But not an entirely unfair one. And that’s all that is being claimed here.

  3. Didn’t you say that learning is invisible?

  4. Also, some contents may be better presented through different modalities. For a discussion of this – among others – see (free access): Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183, DOI:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395 available at
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395#aHR0cDovL3d3dy50YW5kZm9ubGluZS5jb20vZG9pL3BkZi8xMC4xMDgwLzAwNDYxNTIwLjIwMTMuODA0Mzk1QEBAMA==

    • Yes, very nice. This will make a wonderful assigned reading for my seminar class on applying cognitive psychology to education – but sadly, the academic format means the public at large won’t read it (not a criticism to you at all). So unfortunately, we need to break it down further into bite-sized blog posts and even memes in order to get through to more people.

  5. There should be nothing controversial about this, I think. The learning process is complex and complicated, and people are messy; hence, evidence is difficult to interpret. In the blog, and in the comments, there appears to be consensus that people do have preferences, that using a diversity of modalities when teaching is probably good practice, and Learning Styles is pushing the concept beyond the evidence.

    The problem comes when authorities take this and insist that to get more modalities into a lesson they need to latch onto Learninng Styles and insist that these are catered for in all lessons. This distorts the education process, and creates another rod with which to beat teachers.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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