Learning Styles

The idea of “meshing” a student’s learning style with the way one teaches is an old and common approach to pedagogy.  As this idea goes, we should work out whether our student is an “analytical” type or a “creative” type and alter our instruction to fit the way our student learns best.  Somewhat related to my post from last Friday, if the student is an intuitive learner and enjoys learning by listening and imitating, then we should teach more by playing for the student.  On the other hand, students who are a little more “left brained” will learn best through analysis and we should teach them the details.  Students who are visual learners should be assigned reading while students who learn best by doing should be given in-class projects.

This sort of teaching philosophy is ubiquitous these days.  There are tests that teachers can give to assess their students’ learning styles so that we can cater how we present the information to them.  Some students may prefer to get their information through pictures, some through speech, some through text, and many other methods.  It seems like a no brainer, particularly for those of us teaching private music lessons, where we can easily alter our instruction for an individual student without worrying about a class full of differing students.  There’s only one problem with meshing instruction to fit the individual student’s learning style.  When carefully controlled and tested, students generally don’t respond better or worse to being taught in their preferred method.

From a general education standpoint, much of the pedagogy focused on adapting instruction to a student’s learning style seems to be driven by an industry that publishes and sells tests and other resources to teachers.  These practices are found at all education levels, ranging from elementary school all the way to higher education.  Current educational psychology textbooks also present learning styles as important for future teachers to understand.  The business of selling tests and resources to teachers has been so common for so long that we simply don’t question their basic premise.

Our reliance on such assessments seems to be related to a number of different factors.  One is the idea of separating individual students into a particular learning type.  The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is one method that many are familiar with.  This test is one of the most popular psychological assessments in use today, yet it is largely used outside the field of psychology.  There is, I admit, a certain appeal in assigning students into particular psychological types, yet little evidence that doing so makes any difference to learning outcomes.  Another factor is that we like to feel that each student is being treated as an individual.  Additionally, when student’s aren’t succeeding it’s comforting to believe that the problem isn’t related to the student, but to the student’s learning environment.

At this point I should acknowledge that we all have individual learning preferences.  Some students will enjoy learning through reading more than others.  Some will prefer to absorb information through pictures or video, while others enjoy learning by doing.  What this don’t show, however, is whether or not adopting the instruction to suit preferences actually alters the abilities of students to learn the material.  In fact, current research by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Rober Bjork failed to find a correlation between adjusting instruction to fit learning preference and successful learning.  Pashler, et al, criticize research that purports to show evidence for a correlation.

. . . our efforts revealed at most one arguable piece of evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis in general. For the many specific assessment devices and interventions being actively marketed to teachers, as described earlier in this article, we were unable to find any evidence that would meet the key criteria discussed earlier. . . Moreover, we found a number of published studies that used what we have described as the appropriate research design for testing the learning-styles hypothesis and found results that contradict widely held versions of the learning-styles hypothesis. . .

One important thing to note before I conclude this post is that certain subjects must necessarily favor particular instruction.  If you’re teaching a course in writing, you would have to heavily favor verbal instruction.  More relevant to most readers of my blog, musical instruction would need to lean heavily towards aural-based instruction.  My point isn’t to discourage music teachers from trying to adopt their instruction to suit the individual student.  We clearly do need to approach each student as individuals and cater our instruction to fit the student’s unique needs and abilities.  On the other hand, it’s important to note that altering our pedagogy to fit a student’s apparent learning preference at best may not be improving our teaching at all and at worst may be leaving out important instructions that can be essential for improvement.  For example, a music student with a good ear will certainly do well by imitation, however relying on this instruction will not help this student learn to read music better.  I often feel that when a student’s learning preference is established that rather than showing me the best way to instruct the student that this shows me deficiencies in the student’s abilities that need to be emphasized.

Lyle Sanford

That last sentence frames the situation well. I wonder, though, if there’s not a better description of what the education establishment is calling “learning preferences”. Some people like doing what comes easily and others enjoy challenges. All our brains are wired differently due to nature and nurture and the teacher’s job is to help the student improve all the music making facets in a balanced way.

Also, just saw recently but can’t remember where, someone making the point the Myers-Briggs is a crock because all the questions tend to be either/or with no shading between, which means someone can get very different results on different days in different moods.

Hope you continue this series of posts, as they’re very helpful.


Hi, Lyle.

You wrote, “Some people like doing what comes easily and others enjoy challenges.” I think that the term “learning preferences” suits this very well. To rephrase what you say, some people prefer doing what comes easily and others prefer challenges.

Something interesting that your comment made me think of is how musicians tend to practice. It seems that we enjoy practicing what we can already do fairly well, more so than practicing things that don’t sound so good. We can inadvertently not spend enough time practicing things that really need more work.

An other result of this tendency to practice what we enjoy is that we may end up with a biased impression of what makes for improvement. Whenever I hear someone say something like, “I practiced method X for two weeks and got better,” I hear, “I practiced for two weeks and got better.” If you happen to enjoy practicing method X, then you’ll be more likely to get the regular practice in. There may just be a better way to practice that would allow for quicker improvement that might not fit our learning preference. Sometimes I think moving out of our comfort zone is one of the best things we can do with our practice, but it takes a certain degree of discipline.


Lyle Sanford

Dave – Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with all you say. By conflating “learning styles” with “learning preferences” my meaning was garbled. Just meant that preferences can trump styles, so spending too much time thinking about styles can be less helpful than it might seem.

Your points on practice are excellent.

The reason I’m so enjoying this thread is that I’m trying to come up with learning materials for people not allowed into the educational system. What works for the music making elite doesn’t necessarily work for regular folks. Your teasing out the various strands of what’s going on in teaching really helps clarify what’s going on in that process, and gives insight into how it might be adapted. Thought I’d mention this, as my comments may seem somewhat tangential to your purpose.

Couple of other points while I’m writing in – Hornmatters has gotten so feature rich it’s choking my dial-up connection so I just got around to the “curmudgeon” comments. I wanna be in that club, please!

You mention jazz in your header. If you’re ever at a loss for a post subject, would love to hear anything you might say about whether you think improvisation can be of benefit to overall music making, or do you tend to think of it as apart from playing the canon.

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