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:

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.21.06 AM

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.

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.

Listening and bar-exam prep

Studying for the bar exam. No one enjoys it and no one wants to repeat the experience. My question for this post is relevant to anyone taking a bar-exam prep class live or through video or audio: How do bar-exam students listen most effectively in studying for the bar? This post explores how bar takers can listen with power—bar-exam-taking power.

Knowledge Base Before Listening

Creative Commons/Philip Larson
Creative Commons/Philip Larson

The sad truth is that you can learn something a lot better when you already know it—or at least when you already know something about what you’re supposed to be learning. The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to listen and pay attention to anyone talking about that subject. The good bar-prep companies certainly know this and try to make the material entertaining and easy to follow.

But you can take some of your own steps before a lecture. Advance prep could provide more of a framework for listening to the bar lecture:

  • Look at a bar study guide for a quick outline of the topic.
  • Look at the table of contents of a case book on the topic.
  • If the topic is statutory, skim the statutory outline for that area of law your state.
  • Make diagrams of the topic or find a diagram you can use to help think about what you’re going to hear. Recopying the diagram in your own hand will be more powerful than just looking at diagrams.
  • Google the topic and find some real-world scenarios. Learning how this area of law works in the world could motive more focused listening.
  • Look at a few bar-exam questions that ask questions on the topic. Not only could this build some knowledge by showing you how the issues might arise in a quasi-real-world situation, but it could also tap into a pretty powerful motivator of attention: FEAR.

Hearing/Stimulus and Awareness

Listening is not the same thing as hearing, but hearing is necessary to listening. Therefore the most obvious thing to say here is to make sure you are hearing and paying attention to the lecture. Don’t half-listen during the bar-exam lectures, assuming you’ll go over it in your notes later. Giving only “continuous partial attention” to the scintillating lecture on commercial paper means you’re already introducing an inefficiency into your bar preparation.

And here I’m going to get controversial for a moment. Please do not allow yourself to tune out the lecture by telling yourself “I’m not an auditory learner. I learn better with pictures/charts/emojis/etc.” The idea that people have a preferred “learning style” is under serious attack. Howard Garner, the widely credited source of “multiple intelligences” has publicly asked educators to stop equating them with “learning styles.”

People may prefer to learn a certain way, but that does not mean they actually do learn better that way; critics say the idea of “learning styles” is intuitively appealing but lacking in reliable proof. That controversy can’t be resolved here, and it doesn’t need to be. Just don’t use the idea of learning styles as an excuse to listen with less than full attention. Test-takers should take full advantage of different ways to learn from traditional lectures to charting to flash cards to a surprising option you can read about at the end of this post.

And one more note about the initial hearing part: I really don’t think it will work to listen to bar-prep audio recordings on a speeded-up pace. (Do experts recommend this idea?) It seems you want some pauses in between the information to give your  mind time to actually process it. Those pauses may frustrate the bored or distracted mind (more on this in a future post). But your goal in studying for the bar is not to be entertained every second. It’s to pass the d*mn bar.


The prevalent models of the listening process all include a variety of hidden intellectual functions such as interpreting, translating, understanding, and evaluating.

One trick to true understanding is knowing whether you in fact understand. But the Dunning-Kruger effect seems alive and well across every domain—meaning unprepared bar takers may be not only unprepared but also unable to know just how unprepared they are.

Stated more constructively, try to monitor your own understanding while listening, and afterwards via practice exams. Lots of them. In a perfect world, we all understand everything the first time it passes our ears. But it’s not a perfect world, and the next best thing is to know something is important and also to know you’re not getting it. You might know it right then during the lecture, or later after bombing a practice exam. But then you can do something about the lack of understanding.


Remembering (at least for the short term) is part of listening, and part of overall cognitive functioning. And remembering details—especially details that aren’t inherently interesting—is difficult.

To prepare for a high-pressure memorization test, you want to get the information “set” in your long-term memory for use on the bar. This doesn’t mean remembering it forever, but long-term memory is the right term. Short-term or working memory only holds information for about 30 seconds tops, and that’s not good enough.  

To pass information to long-term memory, you have to bring it up and use it and repeatedly pass it back through your working memory. That means you can expect to do a lot of flash cards, practice exams, and other active study techniques to help this process. Active studying supplements the listening process and reinforces the learning.

But is there anything bar students can do at the moment of listening to make the most of that listening moment, maximizing their memory for later?

Here the power of the eye may help supplement the power of the ear. As you listen to the lecture, try diagramming what you learn. Make a visual. Make a chart. Draw a picture of each element of the test. Imagine a ridiculous scenario with a clown using commercial paper in some memorable fashion.

If you’re really into exotic yet powerful memory techniques, try building a “Memory Palace” and associating different pieces of information with locations in your memory palace. The Bar Association of San Francisco wrote about this concept hereSolo Practice University wrote about it here. I haven’t tried it, but I did enjoy the book Moonwalking with Einstein, which is about the same technique and if nothing else, would be an entertaining post-bar-exam read.

Closely related to this process of remembering is how you take notes. Let me say this now and be very clear:

Do not take notes on your laptop. 

It is growing clearer and clearer (like here and here and here) that students remember material better when they take notes by hand, as in using handwriting on a piece of paper. This is hard pill for many law students to swallow because it cuts against years of habit. Maybe a more realistic recommendation is this: Don’t take notes on your laptop by default, just because you may have done so throughout law school. There is pretty good evidence that taking notes by hand is at least as good if not better than taking notes on a laptop. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.


Bar lectures are not a deep Socratic exploration of legal theory and jurisprudence. You don’t need to respond to a bar-exam lecture by lining up to pose some theoretical responses and analytical challenges to the material. (Really, please don’t.) As many bar-exam prep experts advise: nobody gets a special reward for an “A” on the bar exam.

Likewise, bar lectures do not require an emotional, empathetic, caring reaction. Really, it may be the most antisocial learning environments of all time.

What, then, is the proper response for a listener?

The response is the studying. The flash cards. The practice essays. Clarification and deeper study of certain problem areas. Eventually, the response is what you do with the information on the exam.

One bar prep source suggests that the #1 mistake is “passive studying.” Don’t go back and half-listen again. Study actively and aggressively to learn and retain the information. Use all the ways to learn, from lectures to diagrams to reading text to taking practice tests. Move around to different study locations to help you remember the material more, rather than staying in one comfortable place. 

And if you really need a change of pace, put in the earbuds and dance. Or at least think about dancing while taking in these “Bar Exam Study Songs.” (HT Lee Burgess of Bar Exam Toolbox for the review.) It’s an unexpected and unorthodox way to incorporate more listening into your bar-exam study routine—but why not?

Lastly, don’t forget the final step of the listening process, as formulated in the Worthington/Fitch-Hauser model:

“Stay Connected and Motivated.”

And good luck to all.

Bar-exam prep is a well-developed industry of its own, with many highly experienced and skillful tutors and prep resources. I’d love to hear from bar-exam prep experts with their advice on listening during the prep process. And for bar-exam takers, what types of listening techniques have worked or not worked? What would you recommend to those studying right now?