Tuesday, 24 July 2012

VAK Learning Styles: An Argument Against and For

I am not sure how many people have heard of the VAK Learning Styles. The general gist is that people have a preferred learning style: Visual, Auditory, or Kinaesthetic. In theory, when somebody learns they will do better in their preferred style they will do better than if they had used one of the other styles.

When I first read of this, I felt that there was something not quite right with this theory. My worry was with the concept of pareidolia, which is the psychological phenomenon that causes us to see human faces in pieces of burnt toast. From an evolutionary standpoint this is very important. There is a low cost to of seeing a pattern that is not there, for example, thinking you saw a sabre-tooth tiger in some nearby bushes. Compare this to the high cost of not seeing a sabre-tooth tiger that is in the bushes. Thus humans are excellent pattern matchers and I am presuming that this stems from excellent visual skills.

My analogy being that I might prefer walking to running but I will get to my destination sooner if I run.

When I searched for this online the first few links that popped up were commercial. This made it seem more likely that it was an idea from someone peddling snake oil. I was glad to see more confirmation on Daniel Willingham's Science and Education Blog. Daniel receives so much mail about Learning Styles that he has a  Learning Styles FAQ  on his website. From somewhere there I was led to a The Neuroscience Literacy of Trainee Teachers (page 23)
... 82% of trainees considered that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style”, even though an extensive review of the educational evidence is unable to support the educational value of identifying learning styles (Coffield, Moseley, Gall, & Ecclestone, 2004). 
Moreover, a recent psychological investigation of the VAK principle tested recall of information presented in the three different styles (Kratzig & Arbuthnott, 2006) and showed no benefit of having material presented in one’s preferred learning style. It  may be, as agreed with by 79% of trainees, that individuals show preferences for the mode in which they receive information but, as concluded by this scientific study, identifying these preferences serves no demonstrable educational purpose and attempts to focus on learning styles appear to be “wasted effort”. Most trainees (60%) also revealed their belief in the usefulness of hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) as a means to explain individual differences amongst learners.
I could easily have stopped there and moved on - leaving myself open to accusations of confirmation bias - but one of the benefits of writing these things down is that you force yourself to think more about the issue. My argument for Learning Styles will use another exercise analogy. Take someone who is in equal physical shape to me but is an excellent rower. If we went on a rowing machine for ten mutes then he would cover a greater amount of ground than I would. My assumption is that we would have done an equal amount of work yet people will think that he has done more when it simply greater efficiency.

Now take a student whose leans in their preferred style. If Learning styles were true, would they actually learn the stuff better in the long term or would they have benefited from doing more work to achieve the same result. I have mentioned before that people prefer the illusion of learning to actual learning.

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