Learning styles, revisited

For the past month, I’ve been struggling with an ankle injury. Yesterday at the orthopedist’s office, the medical questionnaire asked about patients’ preferred learning style. The question was something like this:

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My answer was and remains, “ I don’t care how you give me the information as long as you fix my ankle!”

And that connects to a post from last year, “Back to school means ‘what’s your learning style?’” That post points out that learning styles are better thought of as learning preferences by individuals. It cites some research and analysis questioning whether teaching to an individual’s preferred learning style actually enhances their learning outcomes. In other words, it’s not clear that teaching to learning styles helps people actually learn.

The consensus at least among learning-style skeptics is this: learning-style preferences do not mean information actually is more effective when packaged to meet any one person’s preference. A learner may prefer to learn visually, but certain lessons about music must be presented in auditory format. A learner may prefer to learn by acting and moving, but certain math concepts must be presented visually in a formula. For physical therapy, learning by doing makes a lot of sense so you can model the right way to do the exercises. The basic takeaway is this:

The nature of the information is the most significant factor in how that information should be presented to learners.

This is an important point for those who care about good listening skills. With the popularity of texting and email and other screen-based forms of communication, comfort with and preferences for listening and face-to-face conversations would seem to be in jeopardy. Future lawyers should not use their exposure to learning styles to say, “I’m going to text the client this bad news instead of calling her because I prefer to get information in writing and visually.”

As I wrote last year, many people have written really good articles about using learning styles in the law-school classroom. And none of this is to excuse a decision by a professor to always use the Socratic method or any other default method. But it is worthwhile to question what seems to be the very popular belief that people learn information effectively when it is reshaped to fit their preferences.