Further Evidence Against Learning Styles

I’ve written about “learning styles” a couple of times before, here and here. If you haven’t read them or it’s been too long ago, the gist of my argument is that music teachers and students need to abandon this idea of learning styles. The evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually true.

Dr. Steven Novella recently blogged about this topic on Neurologica. He summarizes “learning styles” as:

The idea is that individual people learn better if the material is presented in a style, format, or context that fits best with their preferences. The idea is appealing because, first, everyone likes to think about themselves and have something to identify with. But also it gives educators the feeling that they can get an edge by applying a simple scheme to their teaching. I also frequently find it is a convenient excuse for lack of engagement with material.

https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-learning-styles-myth/

Novella’s blog post also mentions and links to the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s article, Learning Styles as a Myth. The article is short, but well cited and doesn’t just discuss evidence against learning styles but also provides helpful evidence-based suggestions for improving pedagogy.

Lastly, it’s fun to play around with this online test to supposedly tell “What’s Your Learning Style?” Like Novella, I found it to be pretty silly. As a professional musician you’d expect my results to be skewed towards “aural,” but there’s so much subjectivity and missed context here. For example, one of the question asked what I would prefer to do for fun, and it included “listen to music” as one of the options. I actually answered “read” instead, because often I’m engaged in music and sounds so much throughout the day that for fun I prefer quiet to relax.

As I have argued before, what these test are telling you, at best, is what your learning “preference” is, not your learning style. There’s a difference between how a student wants to learn and whether or not the materials are being absorbed. It’s long past time for teachers to leave the learning styles myth behind.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although 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.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

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. Continue reading Learning Styles

You’re Not An Auditory Learner

One of the most persistent myths in education is that students have a “learning style.” This misunderstanding is so pervasive that most teachers believe that their students will learn best when materials are presented to them in a manner that matches their supposed modality (most commonly broken into visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic). Unfortunately, this has not been shown to have any effect on student success. In fact, it’s an unnecessary approach that takes time away from presenting the materials in a manner that is consistent with the subject matter. In other words, the topic being studied should be presented correctly.

Music requires an auditory component. Some students are going to do better than others in picking up things by ear, but that doesn’t mean that students who take longer should be presented that material in a “visual” way. Some students sight read more easily than others, but that doesn’t mean that teaching music literacy in a kinesthetic manner is better for them. We are all visual learners, auditory learners, reading learners, and kinesthetic learners. We’re all analytical and intuitive.

Here’s a fun video I recently came across that describes the learning styles myth and goes into some details about the research that has (and hasn’t been) done on it.

I’ve written a bit about this topic before. It’s one of those things that a lot of people get hung up on, in spite of the evidence that it doesn’t work.

Making 21st Century Connections to Brass Music

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a video demonstration by physicist Richard Smith where he shows how air doesn’t need to travel through a brass instrument in order for the normal acoustics of the instrument to work. While I find the science behind it and the creative thinking he used to create the demonstration interesting, what I’m most curious about is the discussion is sparked on the pedagogy forum where I first came across this video. If you didn’t see this video, here it is again.

I mentioned in my previous post that I found some of the comments disappointing and surprising. I made a couple of responses in the pedagogy forum that I wanted to share here for other folks who are concerned about “practical applications” of taking the time to learn this information.


The only legitimate criticism I’ve seen in this thread is that the title of the video is somewhat misleading, although I think it’s still technically true. All we really need to get a brass instrument to resonate is an oscillator, it doesn’t need to be lips excited by air being blown past them.

But for those of you who are being snarky, dismissive, or downright degrading Dr. Smith’s video demonstration because you don’t see an immediate application to trombone pedagogy, here are a few things I’d like to offer as food for thought.

In North Carolina, where I live, the public school’s guidelines for music standards are broken into three parts: Musical Literacy, Musical Response, and Contextual Relevancy. These are then further broken down into more detailed standards, one of which states, “Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music.” Other states likely have similar education standards. In my opinion, this is a good goal to have. Music is not created and learned in a vacuum. It’s important to learn how music relates to history, sociology, and yes, science.

I think we all agree that modeling to our students is an important and effective way to communicate musical instructions. Most of us probably play for our students and recommend listening to quality performances. You might also consider that you’re not just modeling music, but also attitude. Even if you only teach private lessons, when you openly dismiss a science demonstration that describes the way a brass instrument actually works you’re effectively undermining that student’s band director’s attempts to make an interdisciplinary connection with music. You’re modeling that science isn’t relevant to music and discouraging science literacy. And you might consider that many of the members of this Facebook group are students and future music educators. What attitude should the experienced teachers here be modeling to them?

Unless you’re teaching at a conservatory, and even if you do, your students are likely going to have to make a connection with science and music at some point in their life. The video demonstration (and the technical paper) may not seem directly relevant to the lessons you’re teaching now, but when that student asks for your advice about, for example, a presentation she has to give for another class and how she might incorporate her love for trombone into that discipline, you now have a resource you can recommend.

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to get all your students excited about trombone. Many students might really connect with this video and that could potentially help you in your lessons. And if you’re thinking that this is only good for students with an analytical learning style you need to consider that “learning styles” are mostly just “learning preferences” and teaching to a student’s preferences don’t usually lead to better outcomes. If a student is resistant to analytical thinking, it’s probable that it’s exposing a weakness that should be improved, not avoided.

While I’m not a scientist, I am a science fan. Learning more about the way the world actually works is cool. Like music, I find science intrinsically rewarding on its own without requiring any direct relevance to something else. But when the science happens to relate to music, even superficially, that makes it even more interesting to me. I’m sure I’m not alone with this, and you might have some students who feel similarly.


If you’re concerned about the content of this video not being “practical,” it’s arguably more practical in the 21st century to teach scientific literacy than to teach how to make fart sounds through a metal tube. Hyperbole aside, one immediate practical benefit can be found right here. It’s prompted an interesting discussion about why we tend to teach through analogy and visualization. This has spun off somewhat to a discussion of how such instructions can be taken to the extreme and how and why to pull things back. This is a good conversation for teachers to have.

Do you need to stop everything in your weekly lessons to show your students this video? Of course not, but the information contained are worth filing away for the future. Here’s another practical application. Your hypothetical student arrives to his or her lesson with a large pimple on the lip right where the mouthpiece rim is placed. You have 30-60 minutes to fill. I’m sure you could think about lots of ways to fill this time with “practical” information, but some students will get really jazzed about stuff like this. Even students who might not be immediately receptive to science might take this idea and run with it later. It’s hard to predict the downstream effects of improving our understanding of the way the world works. Maybe that student takes the membrane mouthpiece device shown in this video, combines it with a piece of technology yet to be developed, and then writes a graduate thesis that has a direct effect on brass pedagogy.

Furthermore, I think brass pedagogy could stand a little more of the scientific method and critical thinking. One thing we learn from this video is that our intuitions about the way our instruments really work aren’t always accurate. That’s definitely practical knowledge to have.

Embouchure Experiments Lead to Controversy

It’s a busy time for me, with the semester just starting to wrap up, and I’ve much grading to do.  There has been an interesting discussion going around in the horn blogosphere lately, which I’d like to comment briefly on before I get back to work.

It seems to have started with Bruce Hembd’s series of articles on Horn Matters, which he calls “‘Radical’ Embouchure Experiments” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).  In this series Bruce explores some new embouchure ideas (and revisiting some older ones) that he’s been playing around with lately.  They make for an interesting read and while I would argue that the exact procedures may not be the best for every player, it’s clear from the series that he’s just offering this for food for thought and not making recommendations for anyone else.

This series of posts led Julia Rose, the hornist behind Julia’s Horn Page blog, to begin thinking about how her attitude to analysis has changed over time with her post, “No more analyzing.”  I think the key thing to keep in mind to understand the context of her post is when she writes, “I understand that this way may not be for everyone, and that some folks may feel the need to analyze.  But that method is just not for me anymore” (my emphasis).

Many other people responded to the “Radical Embouchure Experiments” series in the comments.   Continue reading Embouchure Experiments Lead to Controversy