Back to school means “what’s your learning style?”

The idea that each learner has an ideal learning style—that is, a style such as visual or aural or kinesthetic, in which they learn most effectively—remains unproven. Yet it appears to be wildly popular and naturally appealing to both teachers and students. The new school year seems like a hot zone for this idea to proliferate anew.

Before delving into the research on learning styles, let’s preempt some backlash. Of course different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and of course different students have different preferences and habits for studying and learning. That’s not the problem.

What remains unproven is that a given person learns “best” in a particular learning style that is different from the way another person (with a different learning style) learns the same materialHere’s UVa education professor Daniel Willingham summarizing his critique of learning styles as a theory. Here’s another article by two psychology professors summing up the studies finding no support for learning styles, including one that tested medical students.  A frequently cited 2008 study by four education professors concluded  “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” 

Learning styles are so appealing and so omnipresent from preschool to graduate school that it can be hard to accept they are some sort of “myth.” A helpful illustration comes from neuroscientist Christian Jarnett in Wired Magazine:

[A]lthough each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Similarly, studying sculpture is not done best by reading long texts describing said sculpture, as pointed out this helpful and balanced piece from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Christian Jarnett goes on to argue that adhering to learning styles as a teaching method is not just a benign misconception but actively harmful. It encourages teachers and learners to direct their teaching toward existing areas of strength, given that “style” may function as a proxy for existing ability and preference. Dan Willingham would also say that mixing teaching styles in the interest of meeting different learning styles in a group may also be harmful, or at least not as beneficial as believed, if doing so works to the detriment of teaching the particular subject matter in the most appropriate way.

This is where listening comes in. When people are surveyed to try to determine their dominant learning style (or preference), listening—i.e. auditory learning—does not tend to rank as a top choice. Legal educator M.H. Sam Jacobson suggested a ranking for law students as learners: most law students report being verbal learners (learning by reading), followed by the next-most populous group of visual learners, followed by oral learners (learning by talking) and only then by auditory learners who learn by listening.

And because auditory learning is relatively unpopular, teaching to preferred learning styles could effectively hurt students’ listening skills even more. Under this theory, if a law student feels most comfortable as a visual or verbal learner, should that student thus learn to represent clients by looking at photographs of clients and reading scripts of interviews with clients? Clinics and externships offer incredible opportunities to interview clients, to take notes, to negotiate, to go to court—to do a lot of things that don’t neatly fit into the most popular categories.

It seems unlikely that an idea about learning styles would dissuade someone from clinic work. What I’m more concerned about is the way learning styles might subtly affect law students’ habits and beliefs: A law student might gain the notion he or she learns particularly well by reading and visuals, more so than by listening, and thus steer her way of thinking and studying towards words and images and away from talking and listening. Or struggle with taking notes in class or interviewing a client, and conclude that part of the reason is a learning style other than auditory.

Law students need to develop all modalities to be effective practitioners. . . . [R]egardless of whether one self-identifies as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile learner, lawyers regularly use each of those modalities in practice. They process information by reading and synthesizing legal authority and documents obtained during discovery, for example, and act on oral directives from clients, judges, and colleagues.

This is from an excellent, in-depth, and critical yet constructive exploration of learning styles in legal education, Aïda Alaka’s article Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 133 (2011). Alaka carefully explores other frameworks for learning styles besides the “visual-aural-kinesthetic” model which is the main focus of this post. She ultimately concludes with the pragmatic notion that teaching material in a variety of ways beyond (1) assigning cases and (2) employing the Socratic method is certainly a good thing. (Hear, hear!)

She also suggests that while listening should not be neglected, reading will remain the most critical skill:

[R]ecent empirical studies suggest that developing law students’ critical reading skills and literacy are paramount to successful law school performance. Regardless of desire or preference, law students should understand that learning through reading is, and is likely to remain, the principle method by which they will absorb new information in law school and beyond.

In reading for this post, I came across a completely different type model formulated by educator Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do:

  • Surface learners “do as little as possible to get by”
  • Strategic learners “aim for top grades rather than true understanding”
  • Deep learners “leave college with a real, rich education”

Just on its face, this framework bears parallels to listening. Surface listeners may just take in the key points and miss information as well as subtle cues. Strategic listeners may deploy active listening and other techniques, but miss opportunities to follow up and dig because they seize conversational cues to begin talking again. Deep listeners make the most of precious face time spent with conversation partners, leaving the conversation with a “real, rich” sense of learning information and building relationships through their communication skills including listening.

I look forward to reading more about this framework and exploring how learners who may fit into each of these categories can enrich the way they learn, and especially the way they listen.


Blogger’s note: People I greatly respect have written about and at times touted the benefits of teaching to individual learning styles. In fact I myself gave a 2006 presentation about using visual tools to teach legal writing, which I based partly on the idea of visual learners as a significant component of the law-student population. My post here does not in any way change my admiration for the scholars and educators who have studied learning theories including as learning styles in the quest to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.

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