Learning Styles and Test Performance

Decades of research on learning styles have resulted in widespread familiarity with the concept. Ask most students what kind of learners they are and they will often answer with a learning style descriptor—visual, verbal, kinesthetic, auditory, converger. Many will tell you they know because they've taken a learning style inventory. However, some students think that their learning style preference is not just the best way they learn, it's the only way they can learn. For instance, a student recently told a colleague of mine that he needed something other than the course texts because he was a visual learner and couldn't learn by reading.

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Decades of research on learning styles have resulted in widespread familiarity with the concept. Ask most students what kind of learners they are and they will often answer with a learning style descriptor—visual, verbal, kinesthetic, auditory, converger. Many will tell you they know because they've taken a learning style inventory. However, some students think that their learning style preference is not just the best way they learn, it's the only way they can learn. For instance, a student recently told a colleague of mine that he needed something other than the course texts because he was a visual learner and couldn't learn by reading.

A learning style preference should not be taken to preclude learning in a variety of ways. It's difficult to imagine any professional context in which learning by reading will not be expected at least some of the time.

The question for educators is whether learning style research means that teachers should teach according to how students learn—an issue about which there is now disagreement in the literature. The assumption has been that if teachers do adapt to how students learn, learning outcomes will improve. Some experts maintain that if teachers try to teach in ways that respond to learning style differences, they should also be testing in ways that respond to these differences. Bacon and Hartley (2015) point out that this is not traditionally how learning gains have been measured. Their study aspired to begin redressing that omission.

In their study, Bacon and Hartley (2015) combined two learning style inventories, seeking an improved measure of learning styles—specifically, one that differentiated visual and verbal learners. To implement the study, 160 marketing students, mostly second-year students, took the inventory several weeks into a marketing course. The final for that course, a traditional 100-question multiple-choice test, was redesigned to include 25 visual test items. A typical visual question showed a figure or image from the text that was followed by a set of multiple-choice options. The hypothesis was that students whose learning style scores identified them as visual learners would score better on the visual items, and vice versa for the verbal learners.

The hypothesis was not confirmed. Visual learners scored 78 percent (SD = 10 percent) on the visual items and 81 percent (SD = 9 percent) on the verbal items. Verbal learners scored 75 percent (SD = 12 percent) on the visual items and 80 percent (SD = 11 percent) on the verbal items. These differences are small and not statistically significant. Several other statistical analyses further confirmed the lack of relationship. “No significant or substantial relationship was found between self-reported learning styles and individual differences in performances on visual or verbal items.” p. 209) A second study by the same authors found that math aptitude (as measured by the SAT Math score) did relate to visual and verbal test items scores.

“The present research has found evidence to suggest that the relationship between teaching styles, learning styles, and assessment options are complicated and not completely understood” (p. 212). That probably shouldn't surprise us. Rather, it should motivate us to be sure that students understand that learning style preferences are just that: preferences, not prescriptions. Learning style researchers have long pointed out that the sophisticated learner sizes up the task before deciding how to approach it.

Reference: Donald R. Bacon, and Steven W. Hartley. 2015. “Exploring Antecedents of Performance Differences on Visual and Verbal Test Items: Learning Styles Versus Aptitude. Marketing Education Review 25 (3): 205–214.