Teachers are always thinking about things they can do to have more of an impact on their students. One popular idea involves matching your style of teaching to different students’ learning styles.
Answer this question in your head.
Do students learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style?
Yes Is Wrong & Harmful
If you said yes, you are not alone. A recent study revealed that 76% of teachers believe the answer is yes. This finding is consistent with previous research. However, your belief is wrong.
The answer is no. Students do not learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.
Research shows that:
- Just because a person states or believes they learn a certain way does not mean they actually learn that way.
- There is no conclusive evidence that matching your style of teaching to students’ preferred styles of learning has any impact on their learning at all.
Most teachers want to help all their students to succeed. The idea that some students don’t succeed simply because they are not being taught in their preferred style is appealing because it ‘supposedly’ helps all students.
However, teachers have limited time and they are already stretched to the brink. Trying to differentiate teaching to cater for students different learning styles wastes your precious time. Teacher should spend that time in better ways – be that by focusing on evidence based aspects of teaching or achieving a better work-life balance.
Furthermore, Australian research showed that students are often categorized as kinesetic learners leading to limited, inappropriate and ineffective teaching strategies being used with these students.
The Truth About Learning Styles
Students do receive information in different modalities – including through sight (visual) and sound (auditory). However, it does not follow that students actually have preferred learning styles. Nor does it mean that students learn better when you teaching matches their so-called, preferred learning styles. Rather, stronger learning occurs when information is presented in multi-modal ways, such as using both words and visuals.
If you truly want to help more of your students to succeed, do not waste your precious time trying to cater for different learning styles. Rather, present all new information in multi-modal ways and use approaches to teaching that have been proven to work.
Reflection On Learning Styles
- Why can’t you take students’ statements about their preferred learning style at face value?
- How can trying to cater for different learning styles be harmful?
- What is a more useful way that teachers could respond to the fact that students take in information through different modes?
The Conceptual Change Process
You may have thought this article was about learning styles and, on the surface it was. However, it also an example of a conceptual change text, which is one form of potent teaching strategy known as conceptual change.
When you start a new topic, it is important you recognise that your students’ minds are not blank slates. Rather, students come into your classroom with existing ideas and beliefs about the topic at hand.
Connecting new information to students’ prior knowledge is important, but this is not a particularly new idea. Teaching for conceptual change goes further, by:
- Acknowledging that some of students’ existing understandings and beliefs may be faulty
- Bringing these beliefs to fore, and highlighting their inadequacy
- Explaining the correct understanding in an easy to understand way
- Helping students to let go of old, faulty ways of thinking and accept new ideas
This is the basic process of conceptual change.
It applies to the contextual change texts that Hattie found had an effect size of d=1.16. In fact, the above is an example of a conceptual change text, as opposed to a traditional text, which would have simply shared information on the importance of presenting information in multi-modal ways.
Yet, you can adapt the same process beyond information and activities in a textbook, to any form of instruction.
Here is an explanation of the conceptual change process in more detail.
Conceptual Change Process Step 1: Identifying Misconceptions
When introducing a new topic, take the time to explore common misconceptions that your students typically have in that area. A simple Google search normally reveals information from a number of trustworthy sources.
In this example, I used the topic of evidence based teaching and found research on a number of prevalent neuromyths in our field, including learning styles, left-brain and right brain learners, and oversimplifying/over identifying dyslexia as seeing reversed letters.
I chose learning styles, as it was the most prevalent (76% of teachers in the UK & the USA believe in catering for learning styles).
However, I then use a question to elicit whether my readers actually believe it themselves.
Conceptual Change Process Step 2: Mental Disturbance
You then seek to create some form of disturbance in the minds of your students. You do this by explicitly stating that an identified misconception is wrong. Yet, you must do more than this. Misconceptions are hard to dislodge. You must, therefore, explain why it is wrong and you must show how holding onto the misconception is harmful in the students’ world.
In the example of learning styles, I tried to do this here.
Conceptual Change Process Step 3: Explaining Correct Conceptions
You then seek to replace the misconception with the correct conception of the topic at hand. To do this, you must present the correct concept:
- Simply and clearly
- In relation to prior knowledge
(in this case students do receive information through multiple modalities)
- As being useful to students’ needs (in this case, helping more students to succeed)
Conceptual Change Process Step 4: Mental Engagement
Imparting information about the incorrectness of a misconception and about the correct understanding is essential. However, conceptual change is more likely to occur when students actively think through what you have taught them.