Is Learning-Styles Based Instruction Effective?

While I disagree with Cuevas’ general assertion that “it appears to be time to put the learning styles approach to rest in practice”, he does make an excellent point in explaining that “good teachers develop a variety of ways to present their content over the years and treat each student as a unique individual” (Cuevas, 2015, p. 330).  My issue lies not in giving credence to differences in learning and approaches, but that Cuevas interprets the learning styles approach as suggesting that one mode or style of learning is best for an individual in all situations.  To simplify the practice in such a way is congruent with saying all introverts are social outcasts or that extroverts do not ever need time to themselves.  And, just as we cannot pigeonhole learners, to borrow a turn of phrase from Cuevas, we cannot pigeonhole curriculum or content.  Within each discipline, there are unique topics or understandings that naturally lend themselves to certain methods of teaching.  Riener and Willingham (2010) seem to consider this relevance to context when they assert that it is “largely ineffective to try to find ways of delivering instruction that are based purely on preference yet independent of content” (Cuevas, 2015, p. 312); however, this kind of disconnected practice is rarely, if ever, implemented.  It would certainly overburden an educator to consider a different variant for each lesson dependent upon learner modalities, but, should an educator develop multiple ways to deliver content, it is generally considered solid instructional format.

Within my high school English class, it is not uncommon to differentiate instruction for a shared academic outcome, and the voice and choice provided does present the solid results that Cuevas claims are lacking.  Much is dependent upon perspective: Cuevas claims that “it would seem inefficient and unproductive to attempt to teach math through auditory means” (p. 312), but my high school math classes and those I encountered in college were all lecture-based with perhaps a bit of discussion, at which Pashler et al (2009) explain auditory learners “excel” (p. 311).  Thus, to return to Cuevas’ comment regarding individually unique students, the best approach to learning styles instruction is not to fully disregard the takeaways of the procedure, but to adapt according to student need when and how appropriate.  As educators, we should always cultivate student strengths and allow them to reach their full potential.

Cuevas, J., (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education. Volume: 13 issue: 3, page(s): 308-333.

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