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