The Learning Styles Zombie


Learning Styles Zombie: Adapted from user cipionhabla on flickr:

The learning styles zombie just will not die.  If you follow me on Twitter (@hodgesc) or other social media platforms, you have seen my posts of disappointment and frustration over the years regarding the never ending stream of nonsense regarding learning styles in Education.  If you need a refresher, flip through the collection of expert opinions I have been maintaining here: Learning Styles and Expert Opinion.

A few things have converged for me lately that have made me think that I am approaching the problem of stamping out the learning zombie incorrectly.  First, I was thinking about the recent discussions of alternative facts in our news media (e.g. Conway: Trump White House offered ‘alternative facts’ on crowd size) and the recent U.S. election process in general, and how differently people look at facts and information. Despite quite clear evidence about various topics and individuals in the election, people continue to believe and promote things that (to me) are clearly wrong. Next, I have come across some recently published examples of learning styles research in academic journals, which resulted in me having some exchanges with Dr. Paul Kirschner on Facebook and Twitter.  Paul has a long record of fighting this zombie.  Mostly recently, he was a coauthor of the book Urban Myths about Learning and Education (reviewed here by Dr. Barbara Lockee in the journal TechTrends ) and an invited editorial in the journal Computers & Education titled “Stop Propagating the Learning Styles Myth“. Finally, I was re-reading the book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain and I was reminded about the work of Halloun and Hestenes (1985). Here is their abstract:

An instrument to assess the basic knowledge state of students taking a first course in physics has been designed and validated. Measurements with the instrument show that the student’s initial qualitative, common sense beliefs about motion and causes has a large effect on performance in physics, but conventional instruction induces only a small change in those beliefs.

Basically, Halloun and Hestenes discovered that despite their best efforts at teaching a beginning, college-level physics class, students often left the class with the same misconceptions that they brought with them into the class.  I have the same problem in the graduate-level Instructional Technology classes that I teach with respect to learning styles.

My classes often wind up touching on learning styles one way or another.  If the myth of learning styles is not on the course outline, it frequently comes up as part of a class discussion, and I take some time to try and correct the misconception.  However, I have the strong sense that I do not change many minds, at least for very long.

My strategy to dispel the learning styles myth has so far been in the form of providing information.  I give students the link to my slide deck linked earlier in this post.  If there is something new on the topic, then I send that along too.  Many of my students are teachers and they usually resist this information.  The will claim that they have “seen” learning styles in their classrooms.  On top of this experience in their classes, learning styles are often actively promoted to teachers as useful information, so my voice is just one data point on the topic for them.

This recent thinking about the learning styles zombie has led me to some interesting reading about epistemology, conceptual change, schema theory, and the nature of facts and opinions.  There is so much to read and consider that I could stay engrossed in the literature probably forever.  However, fulfilling my desire to learn more will do nothing to kill this zombie. I am approaching this problem incorrectly, or maybe just insufficiently.

Simply providing information to my students, no matter how expert the source, is not enough.  I need to create a learning activity that has a good chance of correcting the misconceptions about learning styles.  I need to find out where it can fit into my classes. Ideally I would like to see a professional organization take up the fight too, but there are many good causes to support in Education, and this one is probably not high on their lists.

Why is killing the learning styles zombie important?  Think about the number of hours teachers spend addressing learning styles or learning about learning styles.  Think about the number of dollars spent on materials marketed to help learners with varied learning styles.  Teachers do not need to waste their time and schools do not need to waste money on materials that have no solid footing.

Do you have a good model for designing instruction to address conceptual change?  Do you have an activity for students that fights the learning styles zombie?  I would love to hear about your successes in this battle. We need to create and test these activities and then share them widely.



I was talking to one of my daughters today and remembered two experiences from my life as a young student:

1) In sixth grade the math teacher asked the class  for a show of hands indicating who was interested in math field day.  I raised my hand.  He looked square at me and said something like “You’ll never make it very far in the competition.  Don’t try.”  I didn’t, until much later.  During my junior or senior year in high school I finally participated and advanced to the regional competition.  I bombed there in spectacular fashion, but I went on to earn two math degrees and work for 17 years as a college math instructor.

2) In high school I wanted to skip a particular introductory class.  I had owned a computer for  few years and could already do everything we were doing in the introductory class.  The teacher would not allow it so I decided not to take her classes.  She commented in a not-so-nice tone that unless I had her classes, I would never pass college.  I did pass college (3 times) and earned a minor in Computer Science with one degree.  Now I am an Associate Professor.

I do not recall either incident inspiring some deep rooted resolve to prove these teachers wrong, but I am glad I did in the end. I am sure they have no idea and probably don’t even remember these incidents, but I get some self-satisfaction out of the path I have taken.  Something curious to me is that not only did I go on to have life experiences that proved these two instances wrong, my main line of research has focused on learner motivation issues and some on feedback to students.  Is that a total coincidence, or was something planted in me as early as the 6th grade?

What about other students?  I was lucky to take a path that lead me past these comments. I’ll bet many other students didn’t have my luck.  Teachers, choose your words carefully.

I told my daughter that in life you need to do this sometimes, and that as a girl/woman, she’ll need to do it even more often — prove “them”, whoever “them” might be, wrong.