The Science of Learning: Introduction and Learning Styles

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     I believe incoming freshmen, and other students as well, would benefit from a course on the science of learning. To know how your mind works–how it receives and processes sensory information (such as the sensation of hearing professors speak, reading textbooks and articles, and seeing presentations) is invaluable knowledge for students.

     Now, thanks to The Stallion editorial staff, you can experience the next-best thing: a biweekly article that provides specific tips, pointers and facts about how humans learn. Maybe this is even better–because there is no homework, no textbook and no tuition cost. Instead, you can read a short article that provides some facts about how you learn, offers a tip or two to help you improve your performance as a student and offers a couple of references that direct you toward the research–so you can dig in a little deeper if you are interested.

     Topics addressed this semester will include working memory capacity, cognitive load, learning styles, multitasking, test anxiety, multiple intelligences, schema activation, mindset, intellectual agency and others. Some of these ideas will be explained, and others will be debunked–or, at least reassessed.

     As a taste, let’s start with learning styles. You have probably been told at some point in your education that students have different learning styles. Some of us are auditory learners, others learn best visually, and some learn best by doing. Within education circles, the idea had become an indisputable truth–the sort that you argue against at your peril.

     An educational mantra is that teachers who care about their students will differentiate instruction to match learning styles. The idea has become so popular that the Galileo search I just performed for “learning styles” generated 1,818,995 items. An Amazon book search for “learning styles” yielded over 20,000 choices. There is an International Learning Style Institute that hosts conferences each year. A Google search for “learning styles instrument” (conceptual tool teachers can use to help them adjust their teaching to learning styles) yielded 53,100,000 results. Learning Styles has provided many lucrative business opportunities and has become part of the educational vernacular.

     However, in 2008, a group of scholars were asked to determine whether the practices associated with the learning style literature were supported by scientific evidence. The answer given by Pashler and others (Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 9, No. 3, Dec. 2008) was that although children and adults regularly disclose they have learning style preferences, there was practically no scientific evidence to support the claim that students learn more when teachers adjust teaching and assessment to learning styles. As reported by Pashler, scientific studies flatly contradicted the idea that teaching and testing I reference to preferred learning styles improved learning.

     If we follow Pashler, we might be led to conclude that this whole notion was based on unscientific pop psychology. The issue is a little more complex even than this, however.

     What Pashler and his colleagues demanded of scientific evidence was what is considered the gold standard of scientific research: the randomized control trial. Around 2002, the National Research Council and others decided to more or less throw out all research that did not reach the gold standard. There was quite a backlash.

     We often claim good enough knowledge without randomized control trials. The complexity of the issue goes well beyond this short essay, but to provide a simple example, no one has completed a randomized control trial to determine whether I am actually sitting at a computer typing this article, but I have full confidence that I am.

     You likely have more and less preferred ways of learning. If you know what those are, then have you practiced metacognition, which is a valuable tool for getting the most from your education.

     The next installment of “The Science of Learning” will explain metacognition and will discuss how improving your metacognition can help you become a more successful student. So be sure to look for “The Science of Learning” in the next issue of The Stallion.

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