Tag Archives: learning theories

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.

Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid

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

“If I have to sit through YET ANOTHER freaking ‘professional development’ session based on these cockamamie theories, I am going to pluck my eyeballs out and throw them at whatever charlatan the administration hired to conduct said session.”- professor on an online academic forum discussing learning myths, including the pyramid.

Some educational myths just can’t be killed. Case in point: the learning pyramid.

If you’re  involved with student learning, you are probably familiar with the Learning Pyramid. This diagram breaks down different modes of learning and argues that more active modalities are better for long-term learning: we remember10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, and so on, all the way up to 90% of what we do.

learningpyramid1

Just in the last few weeks, we have witnessed two experts in separate presentations (one in librarianship, the other in education) refer earnestly to the pyramid.  And while we didn’t gouge our eyeballs out, it made us both wince. This is a zombie learning theory that refuses to die.  Whether it’s called the Cone of Learning or the Learning Pyramid, or demonstrates retention rates by another graphic, it keeps getting its head methodically removed by a dedicated cadre of researchers, yet rises up again in search of more brains. In this post, we’ll review the history of the pyramid, why it’s wrong, and why it never dies.

History of the Learning Pyramid

Edgar Dale, an expert in audiovisual education, created a model in his 1946 book Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching that he named the Cone of Experience to discuss various modalities/channels of imparting information. His cone did not refer to learning or retention at all, instead modelling levels of abstraction: words being the most abstract in his model, at the top of the cone, and real-life experiences the most concrete, and at the base of the cone (Lalley & Miller, 2007, p. 68). Take a look at the image below left: note that there are no percentages listed, this is purely a theoretical model. Dale did not value one mode over another, but argued for a wide variety of modes depending on context (Molenda, 2004, p. 161). Researchers speculate that Dale based the Cone on an earlier theoretical graph (below right) from 1937’s Visualizing the Curriculum, by Charles F. Hoban, Charles F. Hoban, Jr., and Samuel B Zisman.

learningpyramid2 learningpyramid3

Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience from the first edition of Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, a model of abstract to concrete experiences.  

The probable inspiration for the Cone of Experience, from Visualizing the Curriculum, Charles F. Hoban, Charles F. Hoban, Jr., and Samuel B Zisman (1937, p 23)

Unfortunately, this conceptual model took on a life of its own. While Dale included caveats in the several editions of his work that the Cone was a theoretical model, and that multiple modes could apply to situations depending on the context, his work was ripe to be misused as a practical tool. As Michael Molenda notes, by the third edition of Audio-Visual Materials in Teaching in 1969, Dale had to include a full six pages of disclaimers regarding the cone, titled “Some Possible Misconceptions.”

Despite Dale’s warnings, the Cone of Experience was misapplied and renamed the Learning Pyramid. However, there is no conclusive evidence to back up these average retention rates. How did this happen?

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Examples of what the Cone of Experience became. The links to the images above have been removed to protect the mistaken. They are just two examples of the hundreds found on a simple Web search.

Who first came up with the retention rates associated with the learning pyramid is murky, but researchers have theories. Molenda (working with several sources) believes the development involved Paul John Phillips, an instructor working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Training Methods Branch during World War II. Phillips returned to work after the war to the University of Texas, where he trained members of the petroleum industry. The University of Texas records tie Phillips to the retention rates used in the pyramid. However, when Michael Molenda contacted both the University of Texas Division of Extension and the archivist at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, they could find no research regarding the percentages.

In Molenda’s history, the learning pyramid with retention rates was first published in a magazine article in 1967, by D. G. Treichler. The author included no citations or evidence to back up the retention rates, but Molenda suspects that they probably they came from Phillips, as he distributed training materials to the industry while at UT.

However, the current propagator of the learning pyramid is the unassociated NLT Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, which claims to have research from the early 1960s which supports the pyramid, but has lost the evidence. Will Thalheimer points out in an excellent post on the pyramid, that this lack of evidence negates all credibility. Even if research were conducted at one time, we cannot trust it. The context has been lost, as well as the ability to retest the method and examine it for errors.

Why the Learning Pyramid is False

Beyond its sketchy background, the learning pyramid should raise concerns:

  1. What kind of research results end up in such tidy percentages, all multiples of 10?
  2. How would one even develop a method for testing such broad claims?
  3. Do we really believe a learner can remember 90% of anything?
  4. Can an activity be separated from its content and be given credit for learning?

Many distinguished authors have gutted the pyramid’s claims. Educational expert Daniel Willingham provides excellent arguments against the pyramid related to oversimplification; providing an optimal learning experience does not boil down to the instruction method. There are many different variables that impact learning.

Our field has also tried to dispel the myth. In her book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, Char Booth explains another danger of the pyramid, that relying too heavily on the idea of mode strips away designing instruction for differences in context and content (2011, p. 41). Booth’s anecdote about how she embraced the pyramid because of its implications for student engagement illustrates another flaw with it. The pyramid is a visual sighting. If we only remember 30% of what we see, then a picture of the pyramid should not have such a dramatic memory impact on so many people.

What’s the Harm?

As the opening quotation exemplifies, many teaching faculty members know the learning pyramid is false. If you bring it up to them, you will greatly diminish your credibility. (Because the pyramid is so popular, though, we also suggest you tread carefully if a professor speaks of it in a positive way!)

The pyramid also leads one to believe that mental activities themselves produce set amounts of learning. But this mindset fails to address the quality of the mental activity. A librarian might decide to implement a peer coaching activity because the pyramid says teaching others is the best way to remember something, but if the students don’t have the appropriate knowledge, they will probably just end up confusing each other. You should never design a lesson just so students are “active.” As Bill Cerbin states in his essay on active learning research and its implications for college teaching, “Active learning is most effective when the experience supports students to interact with and reflect on the subject matter in substantive ways.”

The Lure of the Pyramid

Despite the pyramid having been debunked in many venues for decades, it continues to show up in educational presentations and literature. How people learn is a complex topic, complicated by advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology research. It’s natural that we should seek commonalities in learning. As the authors of the white paper “Multimodal learning through media” state, “The person(s) who added percentages to the cone of learning were looking for a silver bullet” (2008, p. 8). Shortcuts to ‘what works’ would be especially tempting to librarians who do not have extensive training in education.

In the library field, both of us have attended presentations where the speakers used the pyramid as a quick way to reinforce the importance of engaging students during class. “Remember, people learn better when they are doing!” we are exhorted, as the famous image appears in a slide. The “short cut” is not only a way to simplify complicated processes to ourselves, but to rapidly convince others that student activity is a worthy goal.

Finally, the pyramid speaks to us. When discussing the pyramid with other instructors, we often find ourselves agreeing to the “truthiness” of it: intuitively, it just feels right. Of course being active and participatory should lead to more learning than does more passive activities, like reading or listening. Who among us has not sat in an auditorium during a lecture (library or otherwise), surrounded by sleeping audience members? In fact, the research supports that lecture is of limited use when it comes to retention of material; people’s minds tend to wander after a short period of time. It seems common sense to conclude that methods alternative to lecturing would be better. And if we already believe that other methods are better, then when we view the learning pyramid, confirmation bias kicks in, prompting us to not question premises that support what we already believe.

Grains of Truth

So should we throw away the learning pyramid? Although we hope we have debunked the idea of that different methods of teaching will lead to set percentages of learning, we think this myth does address some valuable ideas:

1.    Memory matters. One of the best ways to measure learning is to assess the retention of material covered. We should continue to survey the literature on memory and retention, such as the 2013 article, “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.”

2.    Think multimodal. As has been mentioned, Dale did not intend to create a hierarchy of mental activities, but to suggest there was a continuum from which to choose. People’s attention spans are short, but they do tend to retain more when the instructor mixes it up: interspersing short lectures with peer collaboration, or after reading a passage, interacting with an online tutorial.

3.    Student engagement. The literature strongly supports that active learning exercises promote students thinking and caring about the material. This greatly aids retention, but it also helps lessen library anxiety and gives students a more positive feeling about the library sessions.

Final Words

Since the 1960s, experts have been trying to convince people that the learning pyramid is bogus. But for every article written exposing its weaknesses, there seem to be dozens of instances where it is invoked as truth in presentations, websites, and trade publications. We hope that having read this post, you will join the forces of pyramid slaying and base your instructional choices on valid research, not educational myths.