Category Archives: Teaching

Tales of the Undead… Learning Theories: Learning Styles

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Outreach, and Alyssa Archer, Instruction Librarian at Radford University.

“I need to drop this class because I’m a visual learner and my professor doesn’t use PowerPoint.” – A student, overheard by one of the co-authors

What do we mean when we say learning styles?

Learning style theories propose that there are certain methods that will enable students to improve their learning. Individual students have innate learning styles that can be discovered and categorized, and when these styles are properly matched with specific pedagogical techniques, academic achievement will increase. For example, a visual learner will benefit most when images are used in class, while an audio learner will achieve more if the same content is provided aurally.

Unlike the Learning Pyramid myth that we addressed in a previous post, where all variations in the theory of the pyramid can be traced back to one common point, there are many learning style theories that have developed independently of each other. You are probably familiar with at least a few. One of the most popular learning styles theories is the VARK: Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic, put forward by Neil Fleming (Fleming & Mills, 1992), adapted from Stirling’s VAK. Others include Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory; Dunn, Dunn & Price’s Learning Style Inventory Honey & Mumford’s LS theory with the categories of Activists, Pragmatists, Theorists, and Reflectors.

While learning style theories do not have one central root like the Pyramid theory, they do have similarities. Hyman and Rosoff (1984), identified four common traits in learning style theories: 1) they try to find out what an individual’s learning style is, 2) categorize it using broad categories 3) match it with a teacher versed in that category, and 4) educate teachers to conduct steps 1-3, thereby repeating the cycle and ensuring the theory’s longevity. In Coffield et al.’s systematic review (2004), they categorized over fifty learning style theories by their key concepts, as shown below.

Fig. 1 Learning style theory categories (Coffield et al., 2004 p. 19)

While there are many different theories behind learning styles, we will use the general phrase “learning styles,” meaning students benefit most when the teaching mode aligns with their particular style.

Higher education literature is full of articles and books about learning styles, and how instructors should tailor their classes to suit different styles in order to support student learning. A quick search in the Library, Informations Science, and Technology Abstracts database showed over 100 articles about learning styles published in just the last 5 years. Many educational articles and websites suggest librarians incorporate different modes of teaching into their learning in order to appeal to the different learning styles.

Another sign that learning styles have gained wide acceptance is its inclusion in Google Snippets, which provides excerpts at the top of a Google search results page. While Google has had issues with offering incorrect information for many different searches, it is feasible that a casual searcher would see this image and assume it to be factual.

Fig. 2 Screenshot of a Google search results page for learning styles

Why are learning styles theories false?

Quite bluntly, despite many studies, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that meshing the learning style with teaching mode improves student learning. The absence of positive evidence has left the door open for supporters of various theories argue that their favored theory works for them, falling into the trap of confirmation bias. In an excellent article from 2015 discussing why these theories persist, Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi explain that learning style theories will not die, because “it is impossible to prove something does not exist.” The authors go on to critique two core components of any of these theories. One, the assumption that despite different environments, an attributed individual learning style is consistent. Two, that regardless of that environment or what is being taught, if the individual’s learning style is matched, their learning will improve.  There have been systematic reviews, some including meta-analysis, with rigorous methodologies that have come up empty-handed.

There is a dearth of foundational, scholarly, peer-reviewed literature underpinning learning style theories. Stahl (1999) provides an excellent critique of the lack of peer-reviewed foundational references in Carbo’s Reading Styles Inventory theory, Fleming’s 1992 article on VARK references an article published in a current affairs magazine the New Zealand Listener, and the list goes on. In the (very interesting!) book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, ” authors note that decades of research has failed to provide reliable ways to assess people’s styles, evidence as to whether you can train teachers to adapt their teaching to such styles, or even what constitutes a learning style (pp. 95-96).

Several years ago, Willingham increased his longstanding reward for a researcher proving a learning style theory produces meaningful learning benefits from $1,000 to $5,000. There has as yet been no winner, with a design proving such theories are sound, but not for lack of trying. But why should this be a surprise? Learning style theories ultimately fall apart due to their own processes. By creating categories through cherry picking key attributes, then trying to fit individuals to these labels to elicit positive learning outcomes, they ignore the many other factors that influence learning.

The lure of learning styles

Despite many publications and presentations debunking learning styles, the myth continues to endure.  Pashler et al. argue that we are instinctively drawn to tests that group people into different categories, like the Myers-Briggs test, despite little proof that such tests are valid. We like to group others, and we like to take quizzes about ourselves. A quick Google search brings up many free versions of the Learning Styles Inventory. We can see the pop culture version of this fascination in Buzzfeed quizzes like “Which Harry Potter character are you?” or “What kind of natural disaster are you?

Librarians may be drawn to learning styles as a way to connect to students we only see once or twice. We don’t have the opportunity to get to know students in our library sessions very well, limiting our ability to tailor the workshop to those students’ particular strengths and interests. But if we design our classes to appeal to all different learning styles, then we could say we are being responsive to different students’ needs.

The commercialization of learning styles has also kept them alive. Some publishers include learning style surveys as activities within textbooks, especially texts aimed at “first year experience”-type classes. In these works, identifying one’s learning style is presented as a strategy to become a better student. This situation is a bit of a chicken-or-egg one: do textbooks include learning styles because instructors demand them, or do instructors teach learning styles because the textbooks include them? Either way, their inclusion understandably leads to the students’ and instructors’ assumption that learning styles are accepted and uncontroversial.

What’s the harm?

Because learning styles are not supported by research, you run the risk of diminishing your credibility by including them in conversations with other teaching faculty or other knowledgeable colleagues. Candice recently attended a pedagogy conference; in one session, the presenter mentioned “learning styles” in passing and the whole crowd groaned. (Conversely, because people can become very invested in learning myths, we recommend you respond tactfully if an administrator or professor speaks positively about learning styles.)

The learning styles myth can also be harmful to people’s perceptions of their own or others’ abilities. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset found that many people believe that personality, intelligence, and talent are things people are either born with–or not. As Dweck puts it, “They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that.” Teachers and students who have a fixed mindset will view learning styles as natural limitations. You simply can’t expect someone–or yourself–to learn something if it’s not in the correct learning style. As Professor Frank Coffield said in an interview, “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.” We see this self-limiting viewpoint expressed in the opening quote, and believe it is an unhelpful concept.

Grains of truth

Can we salvage anything from the idea of learning styles? Although we hope our debunking has successfully removed “learning style” from your pedagogical teaching statement, we leave you with this advice:

  1. Accept that learners do have preferences and strengths. Some people read quickly; some love mechanical tasks. (Interestingly, at least one study showed a very weak correlation between learning styles and learning preferences.) It is important to understand that no one teaching method will work for everyone. As Pashler et al. state, “it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another. One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student” (p. 116).
  2. Flip learning styles to teaching modes. The different modes (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) need to change as your subject matter does. If you are teaching someone how to drive a car, we really, really hope you are giving your student a kinesthetic experience and not simply verbally explaining how to drive. On a more library-specific topic: when we teach about incorporating sources into your paper, we use the analogy of music sampling. This is most effective when we play the songs we discuss. Consider which mode might be most effective to what you’re teaching (while also considering student accommodations, of course).
  3. Think multimodal. There is evidence that learners benefit when instructors mix the modes up: a little lecture followed by a pair-and-share, a visual demonstration and then some hands-on practice. Changing up the modes will appeal to different students’ strengths and preferences, and will increase attention in the class.

Final words

Hopefully, you now consider yourself armed with the tools to help put an end to the myth of learning style theories. And what about the next time you hear a student or colleague voicing an opinion about learning styles, similar to the one we quoted in the beginning of our post? You will have solid, research-based arguments to counter their beliefs, and well-founded pedagogical teaching methods with which to replace their misguided learning style theory.

I Can’t Think of Anything to Ask

My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.

During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask. 

Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that

  1. Questions are hard to ask; and
  2. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
  3. It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.

Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.

I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.

One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.

Finalizing the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sara Harrington, Head of Arts and Archives at Ohio University Libraries.

The Task Force is pleased to announce the release of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education document. The Task Force revising the “Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators” now called “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education” announced a call for feedback via ACRLog and the ILI-L listerv. Feedback was submitted via the gmail address set up for this purpose as well as came in-person at the ALA annual poster session presentation in 2015.

The stakeholder community offered robust feedback on the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education.”  This input ranged from overarching comments to specific suggestions, and included:

  • Awareness of the fact that hiring institutions will be looking to this document for guidance as position descriptions for teaching librarians are developed
  • Word changes to improve readability and clarity
  • Background information on the quantitative analysis of job posting done before the Task Force’s writing process began
  • Questions and suggestions about the nature and formulation of references to the Framework
  • Questions about how the Task Force engaged in its work
  • Questions and suggestions about the organization and order of the roles
  • Suggestions about the relationships of the roles to each other
  • Suggestions about the revision or expansion of specific strengths statements
  • Suggestions about the relationship of specific strengths to roles and suggestions for additional strengths under particular roles
  • Recommendations to include particular concepts, including innovation, curricula, and hospitality
  • Questions and concerns about the significance of the terminology used in the document, most notably the shift from “instruction librarian” to “teaching librarian” and “skills” to “strengths”

The Task Force made a number of grammatical corrections and clarifications based on feedback, as well as made a range of more substantive changes intended to clarify and strengthen the descriptions of the roles and attendant strengths. The Task Force did retain the terminology “teaching librarian” as well as “roles” and “strengths.”

A Google doc containing feedback can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1V4XKtoOf-GQ05YwQaDN9Rwnk0LrDXfzuOlC2LjM-pgs/edit?usp=sharing

After the revision process the document was sent to the Instruction Section Executive Committee and Standards Committee for approval.

The “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians” is now available at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/teachinglibrarians

This document will be formally shared via a variety channels in the coming months, including ili-l, the Instruction Section Newsletter, College and Research Libraries News, and other ACRL digital promotion channels of communication.

The Task Force plans to propose an online session for Fall 2017/Winter 2018 on practical applications for implementation of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians document including, for example:

  • how a librarian writing position descriptions for teaching librarians might use the language
  • how a coordinator of instruction might plan a professional development session around the document
  • how a librarian might apply the document’s language in collaborative work with a faculty member
  • how several teaching librarians might use the document in their own practice.

The Task Force will be sending out a call for volunteers to participate in the session. Please share your comments for us here, as well.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Peer Coaching for Professional Learning

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Marisa Méndez-Brady, Science Librarian, and Jennifer Bonnet, Social Sciences & Humanities Librarian, at the University of Maine.

Finding the time and resources to devote to professional learning can be a challenge, especially at institutions that are less geographically proximate to the broader library community. The University of Maine is a land and sea grant institution in the rural town of Orono, where opportunities to engage with peers at other colleges and universities take a concerted effort and may require additional financial resources to participate. While these constraints limit our ability to go to as many conferences as we would like, one day a year our department attends a gathering of Maine academic librarians where colleagues across the state present ideas that generate excitement and lead to further exploration.

During the 2016 Maine Academic Libraries Day, Bowdoin College librarian Beth Hoppe made a strong case for using the ACRL Framework to embrace non-prescriptive practices in our teaching, as part of a critical pedagogical approach to working with students.

Following this talk, we couldn’t stop thinking: how might we enhance the delivery of information literacy concepts in our own library instruction by more deliberately incorporating critical pedagogy? Motivated to improve our teaching techniques and extend our professional learning, the two of us embarked on a peer coaching project. Over the course of three months we used a study group model to brainstorm, design, and implement a suite of lesson plans that centered the diversity of student voices and experiences in our instruction sessions.

Peer coaching is commonly used in K-12 learning environments, and is a technique lauded by the instructional design community for its broad applicability. It is a non-evaluative, professional learning model in which two or more colleagues work collaboratively to: design curricula, create assessments, develop lesson plans, brainstorm ideas, problem solve, and reflect on current pedagogical practices (Robbins, 2015).

Although peer coaching can be formalized within a department or unit, we participated in an informal method known as the study group model, where two or more people engage in collaborative professional development for learning (PDL) around a subject of interest. We chose this model because it offers flexibility when it comes to constraints on time or finances, providing a sustainable method for professional development during the hectic instruction schedule of a typical semester. The graphic below illustrates different approaches to utilizing peer coaching for professional learning.

From https://www.polk-fl.net/staff/professionaldevelopment/documents/Chapter16-PeerCoaching.pdf

To shape our peer coaching project, we consulted instructional design literature, which (1) emphasizes the importance of creating professional learning that is individualized to the specific learning context and audience for the learning, and (2) focuses on content, pedagogy, or both (Guskey, 2009). We also integrated the three key components of effective peer coaching: a pre-conference to establish the goals for PDL; the learning process; and a post-conference to assess the PDL process.

The pre-conference in the context of peer coaching consists of meeting to establish PDL goals based on participant interest and applicability to one’s praxis. Our pre-conferencing took a two-pronged approach. First, we established an overarching goal to use the ACRL Framework to develop learner-centered teaching outcomes. Then, we held individual pre-conferences focused on the following Frames: (1) research as inquiry, (2) scholarship as conversation, and (3) searching as strategic exploration. We selected three upcoming instruction sessions (i.e., already scheduled in the library) that would be opportune for trying out new pedagogical approaches.

After we set each agenda, we turned from pre-conferencing to the learning process, which involved three study group meetings to design our lesson plans. In advance of each meeting, we selected relevant articles to read and reviewed two to three corresponding lesson plans in the Community of Online Research Assignments. The lesson plans we chose not only engaged with the Framework but revolved around students’ interests and experiences, which helped us consider teaching techniques that were non-prescriptive in practice and drew on critical pedagogical concepts. We then used the scheduled meeting time to adapt these lesson plans to fit the goals of our upcoming instruction sessions.

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” – bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom

The first lesson plan involved a teach-in that asked students to share their decision-making process when searching for information in both open and licensed resources (ACRL frame: research as inquiry), and was targeted at an upper-level undergraduate communications and marketing course. The second lesson plan focused on deconstructing citations and reverse engineering bibliographies, and was designed for an upper-level undergraduate wildlife policy class (ACRL frame: scholarship as conversation). The third lesson plan used one piece of information from a vaguely-worded news article as a jumping-off point for finding related information across various media, which we co-taught for a student club on campus (ACRL frame: searching as strategic exploration). Although these lesson plans were designed for specific contexts, they are broadly applicable across disciplines and academic levels.

We further engaged with critical pedagogy in a post-conference that succeeded each study group meeting. In the peer coaching context, the post-conference acts as an assessment of the study group experience for us (the learners) and emphasizes the role of self-reflection in gauging our own learning. Building on the work we started in the classroom (via each lesson plan), we took a feminist pedagogical perspective to self reflection that involved open-ended questions about process and practice, and addressed our own PDL outcomes.

“Feminist assessment is inherently reflective, and reflection itself is a feminist act.” Maria Accardi, Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction

We hope to continue using peer coaching in other areas of our praxis. Peer coaching offers a low stakes, low-cost option for professional development that leverages existing resources, draws on the interests and skills of colleagues, and allows for higher frequency contact among participant learners (versus a traditional yearly conference). We also found that the informal structure of the study group model supports flexible implementation and facilitates home-grown continuing education opportunities that are targeted to specific issues we face at our library.

So often, we absorb ideas at conferences, webinars, or through informal conversations. Yet, actualizing these ideas in our own institutional environments can be challenging due to issues like time, motivation, and support. Next time you discover a novel approach or way of thinking about your praxis, we encourage you to try peer coaching! We’d love to hear from you about how you use this professional learning strategy in your own environment.