Learning styles and academic achievement

The reasons for disparities in school performance are manifold. There is one factor, however, that in my experience often gets overlooked to the extent that most conventional schools really pay no attention to it whatsoever. This is the question of different learning styles.

Different people learn best with different learning styles. But are certain learning styles a better fit with certain educational systems? And are certain teaching styles more advantegous for students with a given learning style? If the answer is yes, then our schools are overlooking a whole bunch of questions.

The three main learning styles are auditory, visual and kinesthetic. The names are quite self-explanatory: auditory students learn best by listening to lectures and reading, visual learners by watching movies, pictures and graphs, and kinesthetic learners learn by doing things in practice.

A recent article by Vaishnav (2013) indicates that indeed learning styles have a significant effect on academic achievement, at least for Indian secondary school students. The most effective learning style is kinesthetic, followed by auditory and then visual.

The paper doesn’t take teaching style into account, however. So one may wonder whether kinesthetic learners are more successful than the rest because the teaching style prevalent in the sample schools works best for them. Luckily, another recent paper by Ikitde and Edet (2013) comes to the rescue.

In this experiment, the authors test Nigerian high school sophomores’ biology skills. They (or someone on their behalf) actually train teachers in three different teaching styles and then see whether each teaching style resonates with a learning style, and if yes what are these pairs.

The teachers – after being trained in a specified teaching style – basically give students a series of classes on the human respiratory system. There are six schools in the sample, and three teaching styles are tested. So each teaching style is used in two schools. After the series of classes, the students are tested on the material. Of course, each student’s preferred learning style is also known from another test.

The results reinforce the idea that learning styles do differ significantly. However, they also reveal that a different kind of learning style goes best with each teaching style.

Teaching styles used are as follows (excerpted from the paper):

Guided-Inquiry: This is student-centred activity, oriented teaching strategy in which the teacher directs students through problem-solving approach to discover answers to instructional topic at hand.

Lecture Method: It involves a one-way communication pattern in which the teacher is the dominant figure and students’ participation is virtually non-existent, rather they listen, ask questions and take notes.

Demonstration Method: This involves the teacher or the students doing activities in front of the class and explaining as the activity progresses.

Ikitde and Edet use a somewhat different classification of learning styles than Vaishnav. They are

  • sensitive/intuitive (SI): learning facts, well-established methods, no complications; discussing possibilities, like innovation, hate repetition,
  • active/reflexive (AR): like participating in lesson, like to reflect, think about it quietly (closest to kinesthetic in Vaishnav’s taxonomy),
  • visual/verbal (VV): visual images (graphs, charts), verbal lectures, discussions with others (closest to visual and auditory in Vaishnav’s taxonomy),
  • sequential/global (SG): like following logical steps, processes to learn; learn in big jumps, need to see big picture before solving problems.

Unfortunately thus, one cannot make a direct comparison between the results of the two papers because the taxonomy differs. The results of Ikitde and Edet are that as mentioned before certain teaching styles click better with certain learning styles. Each teaching style has a learning style that fits it the best, these are guided-inquiry + SI, demonstration + SG, lecture + VV.

Similarly, each learning style has a preferred teaching style, which are as listed above. Furthermore, the AR learning style appears to perform best with the guided-inquiry teaching style as well.

Both papers quoted involve some simple experiments, with a very brief analysis performed on them. I can’t help but feel that one could have done more with this data or question. Also, the sample size is low (two schools for each teaching style) and I’m not sure how teachers were monitored (if in any way). I’m pretty sure each teacher has their own style (which usually is the same across all teachers in a given culture), and those that had to learn new styles may have performed in a substandard way. Students were perhaps also used to one of the teaching styles.

I’m also not 100% sure what variables the authors controlled for, if any. If say there is an important correlation between IQ and learning style, or SES and learning style, that could pretty much destroy the results.

In any case if the results are robust, these two brief papers shed light on an important issue: that there are different learning styles across students and that not everyone learns the same way. They show a potential to significantly improve certain students’ academic achievement by employing different teaching styles and/or promoting learning styles that fit them.

Indirectly, these papers show further support for educating children in smaller groups. There is no one-size-fits-all education. A high teacher-to-student ratio could ensure that students with different learning styles are taught and perhaps even tested differently. A nice utopia that can perhaps happen one day in rich countries, and may already be happening in some elite private schools.

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