By Tamar Cantwell
Assistant Director, Academic Resource Center, Mercer University
When I held my first tutor training workshop in 2016, I cheerfully launched into the theory of learning styles, about which I knew little. The idea that we each think and learn best in different ways is compelling for a couple of reasons; taking personal inventories like the VARK seems to confirm our uniqueness, and when we complete these entertaining types of questionnaires, we feel as if we are truly learning about learning. But after reading current literature that critiques the theory, I worried I was doing our tutors and tutees a disservice. As Dr. Stephen Chew, Chair and Professor of Psychology at Samford University says in his video series, How to Get the Most out of Studying, “You hear a lot about learning styles. There is simply no good research evidence that supports the validity of learning styles, so forget about them. Besides, if you plan to be successful, you should become good at learning in multiple ways.”
Is this sound advice? Let’s consider: the most common teaching methods include the lecture (before a relatively passive audience), reading and writing assignments (with the expectation that by the time they’ve reached college, students know how to do both), and the deductive approach (stating a rule or formula first and then offering examples and problems afterward). While instructors do vary their strategies for pedagogic reasons, aiming to accommodate each student’s individual learning style could be simply ineffective. The processes of working out math equations, writing a first draft of an essay, and practicing finger placement on a musical instrument, to name just a few, require a combination of kinesthetic, visual, read/write, and aural skill sets. So when it comes to learning styles, should we as instructors, administrators, tutors and students follow Dr. Chew’s admonishment and simply fuhgeddaboudit?
One truth is that we all utilized a variety of learning styles from childhood forward. We were kinesthetic learners when we crawled, stood, and walked; auditory learners when we repeated the sounds that our parents made; visual learners when we recognized colors and shapes; and read/write learners when we traced the letters in our names. Later in life, regardless of our preferred learning habits, we enrolled in classes where we needed to take notes during a ninety-minute lecture or were called to the board to solve a problem, in real time, that we had barely begun to understand. Instead of expecting instructors to adapt to students’ learning styles, can students help themselves by adapting to their professors’ teaching styles? I asked our tutors this question and received the following responses.
Consider a time when either you or a tutee experienced difficulties in learning based on a presentation style (professor or tutor) vs. learning style (study) conflict. Journal about the experience by explaining the problem, your response to the situation, and the outcome.
Jena Dees, writing tutor: My learning style is very reflective, involving reading and writing. I learn best by taking notes and reflecting on them. However, I had a mathematics professor that had a very active, auditory presentation style. The conflict in the class included him interrupting my note-taking to ask me questions, or to explain something, or to come to the board because his style was very interactive. This was very disruptive and disturbing to my learning style. I reacted to the problem by outlining chapters before class and trying to learn in my own style that way. Then, I was able to focus on developing my skills with his style in class by not feeling like I needed to be note-taking since I had already done so.
Jillian Davis, writing tutor: I am definitely in the read/write [style] and need steps to solve a problem. I love having steps to process, and I take a copious amount of notes. I try to write down as much of what my professor says as possible. So, [having] a professor who would just put a couple of things on a PowerPoint and not really expand on the points killed my soul a little bit. He used class to ask questions and give examples. I was so lost because I needed more information in order to understand the biology concepts better. I had to figure out what to do and pretty quickly before I got behind. I went to my professor to talk about the issue I was having. He agreed to put the PowerPoints online prior to class so that I would know what was important and what was going to be discussed. Before class time, I would look at the PowerPoint to know the key concepts and then take notes on it from the book. By doing this, I was able to take adequate notes ahead of time and then apply the knowledge to what we would do in class. This allowed me to grasp the concepts better and do better on the quizzes and exams. If I could do this again, I would begin doing this earlier so that I would not have had to play catch-up and work so hard to bring my grade up.
Halie Zastre, French tutor: I had difficulty in my biology class because the teacher just read off the PowerPoint. I am not a strong auditory learner; I am more read/write, but when everything is on the PowerPoint, you don’t need to take notes. It took me a while to figure out how to study. I was struggling at the beginning, but I changed how [I] studied, and after that, I was successful. I started taking notes on the book and made flashcards on the PowerPoints. [I]t was up to me to adapt to the teacher’s style of teaching.
Lilly Mauti, music theory tutor: In music there are a few ways of learning. Some can just look at the music and get an understanding of it. Some need to listen to the music. Others prefer to play the music themselves. I prefer to look at the music and write notes about it. This is a struggle when the blind music student [whom I tutor] needs help. He certainly cannot read the music the same way I can. I have had to adjust to working with recordings. Even though I often struggle with hearing and explaining the music, I look at it as an opportunity to improve my weaknesses.
Kaitlyn Koontz, writing tutor: As [a tutor working in the classroom under the instructor’s guidance], I have run into this issue a few times. I feel like my learning style is read/write, so during [literature] classes, I always take notes with citations to refer to later. However, some of the students I [tutor] will choose to just listen during class. When it comes time for me to help them, I would always ask students to pull out their notes if they are unsure what to write about. If students did not have any notes from class, I used to find it hard to give the student help to figure out a topic. However, I learned that for students who learn best during class if they just participate, that asking students what piqued their interest would help start the conversation. Once I asked students what interested them during class discussion, I could then help find important evidence and help them formulate a thesis.
In this sample, by examining real-life experiences with learning styles, tutors reflected on their own learning and teaching habits, and each arrived at a similar conclusion: they adapted their practices to accommodate instructors’ teaching styles and tutees’ learning styles. Several tutors reviewed material before lectures so that they could be actively involved during class, some varied their methods of practice, and others practiced retrieval of information after class via flashcards or the use of recall. Our discussion proved most valuable when tutors gained
insight into their own learning processes. In other words, when we talked about the theory rather than dismissing it entirely, tutors recognized their own metacognitive development. Fuhgeddaboudit!
The fact remains that instructors employ all types of teaching methods and favor those best suited to their subject matter. Students, to be successful, must therefore become flexible learners, as Dr. Chew asserts. To that end, I believe that examining both learning and teaching styles is a useful bridge to supporting study strategies that work for all students, regardless of their preferences.
Chew, S., & Samford University (Producers). (2015, March 25). How to study long and hard and still fail…or how to get the most out of studying [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.samford.edu/departments/academic-success-center/how-to-study
Photo by Raj Eiamworakul, @roadtripwithraj, on Unsplash. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com