Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So many learning style tests, so little time..

I went looking for a learning style test for an online course. I thought a learning style test was a nice ramp up for an exercise where people had to blog about their own facilitator style - from the idea that it is good to know your own preferences and biases as a trainer/facilitator. Hoping this awareness helps you to try to stretch and integrate opposite preferences in your design. I asked a question about learning styles on Twitter and in Jane Hart's social learning community and got some good responses which made me really think! A definition on learning style from wikipedia is:
Learning styles are different ways that a person can learn. It's commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli or information. Psychologists have proposed several complementary taxonomies of learning styles. But other psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for some learning style theories (nb: learning may be broader than just processing stimuli or information)
How do you notice differences in learning styles?
One of the observations I have with regards to the use of social media is that some people just love delicious, the social bookmarking service, and others don't bother at all after you show them. The same with blogging. For some it really works, for others they try and abandon it immediately. Personally I dislike podcasts, when I listen to them, my mind gets distracted too easily. I also have the impression some people enjoy learning in communities, others preferred structured courses. Is there something in the personality of learners or learning styles that may explain these differences? And how to work with this as online facilitator?

What are the various learning style tests available?
Here's the list of learning/personality styles tests I harvested:
Ofcourse this is a little overwhelming! And there are more to be found in this report about learning styles.
Do learning styles exist and is it helpful for learning professionals?
I found this video with Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia and this blogpost (via Harold Jarche).

Both claim: "Learning Styles don't exist. Everybody knows this except people who don't. Their non-existence is mostly harmless. And occasionally tragic". The explanation in the video sounds convincing for the case of remembering words- learning a list of words does not work better through audio for auditory people or by images for visually-oriented people. So it's correct that people have different preferences, it is not required that teachers use that to adjust their teaching to those styles. The way you teach depends more on what you are teaching (and I'd say depends on the learning experiences you'd like people to have).

Learning styles and the brain
Reading the book 'brein@work' about brain functioning it is explained that the brain is flexibel and adaptive. One of the definition of learning in this book is: "a proces whereby as a result of our experiences and activities changes occur in the brain which may influence our future awareness and behaviour." From all impressions that people receive we can only process a small portion (2000 bits/sec). The thalamus takes care of this. Visual stimuli are the strongest, but you may use all the senses if you want to make sure information sticks. Repetition is important too, and emotions. This is true for any learner, not only for 'visual learners'.

How to choose a learning style test that fits your purpose?
This question arises which test are you going to use and why? Wilfred Rubens suggested to select a test based on solid research, but don't they all claim that?... In the blogpost there's also a link to this solid report about learning styles by the learning and skills research centre (haven't had time to read it in full but scanned it..). It helps to uncover the assumptions about learning underpinning the learning style tests. It adds new tests to the list, but the good thing is, it can help understand the wide variety by pinpointing to five families of learning style tests:
  1. Assumption that learning styles are constitutionally based/fixed (like VARK I guess)
  2. Idea that learning styles reflect the cognitive structure (like Pettigrew)
  3. Assuming that learning styles are part of a relatively stable personality type (like Myers-Briggs)
  4. Learning styles are flexibly stable preferences (like Kolb)
  5. Move on from learning styles to learning approaches, strategies, orientations (like Vermunt)
This is helpful to select, and I tend to go for 4 or 5, learning styles as flexible preferences or moving to learning approaches, like the language of learning. The report also looks into reliability and validity for 13 models. Some are really weak, some are recommended like Vermunt and Entwistle.

I tested some of them- it helps that I'm a fan of online tests.. I must say that several test results resonated with my own observations and helped me reflect on my own preferences. I liked the Myers-Briggs (which is more a personality test) which pointed out that I'm a rational mastermind- more introverted. It helps me see why I enjoy working online (and other might not or less!), and my strength to explain theories in a practical way.

My take aways?
I'm amazed that there are so many different learning style theories and tests! The families definitely help to choose what you'd want to work with if you are looking for a learning style test. I'd prefer a style test that acknowledges the dynamic nature of preferences. It may depend on the situation and what you want to learn what your preferences are. And I don't believe in the auditory/visual/kinesthetic learner difference.

I still think the tests are helpful for learners to become self-aware. You can use it as a starting point to reflect about yourself and think for instance about your pitfalls and strengths as facilitator. Or as a learner- what activities work for you? Do you thrive on certain ways of learning? How to strengthen this? The downside is ofcourse that you fill in the tests yourself (rubbish in- rubbish out!), so some feedback from others may be needed too.


Anonymous said...

Learning Styles is one of the six components of the SmarterMeasure™ Learning Readiness Indicator (www.SmarterMeasure.com). The model we use is the multiple intelligences model. SmarterMeasure has been taken by over 900,000 students. Each year we produce a national online student readiness report in which we present aggregate data from all persons who have taken the assessment that year. You can view the most recent report at http://www.smartermeasure.com/documents/2010_Online_Student_Readiness_Report.pdf Page ten of that report provides the frequencies of each of the learning styles among distance learning students from that year. Social was the highest at 28%. Then throughout the report you can see how learning styles varied across demographic variables such as gender and ethnicity.

Joitske said...

Thanks Julie for pointing out this report. Sounds very interesting to have an idea of broad preferences!