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Monday, August 29, 2011

The irrepressible myth of different learning styles

NPR had a story this morning discussing the newly joined scientific debate over whether there really are different learning styles (H/T: My colleage Joelle Moreno). A psychologist at the University of South Florida argues that there is no evidence-based scientific support for the idea of different learning styles and that it is a mistake to try to teach differently to different students. Rather, the similarities among brains and styles are more prevalent than the similarities.

Which is not to say that different approaches are not a good idea. Rather, studies show that "mixing things up" (combining aural, visual, movement, etc.) is a good way to keep students interested and engaged, which studies do show better enables them to learn.

So now I have a scientific basis for not being defensive when I get my annual "Use PowerPoint, some of us are visual learners" student comment.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 29, 2011 at 10:45 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I am delighted to find another law prof who refuses to use powerpoint in class. Every year at least one of my property students informs me that my colleagues use powerpoint slides and it would really enhance the learning in my class if I would use them too. I patiently (the first time) respond that I believe much of lawyering involves listening carefully, even to some really boring stuff, and creating a mental structure for retaining and recalling the information. That is what trial lawyers do in the courtroom and corporate lawyers do during most meetings. Because my emphasis in 1L classes is more skills than content - although content is important too - I refuse to shortcut the process of teaching them to not only "think like a lawyer" but to listen like one too.

I should note that I often use powerpoints in my upper level seminars where the focus is much more on content or research skills, and have become almost addicted to using them for public presentations.

Posted by: Teresa Collett | Sep 3, 2011 11:59:11 AM

don't mess with the teleprompter, it is off-limits

Posted by: anymouse | Aug 30, 2011 8:10:07 PM

This is a far more nuanced issue than the NPR article leads one to believe. First, the article implies that the Rorher study "debunked" learning styles theory or otherwise affirmatively disproved their existence. This is not so. The Rorher study was a literature review; it merely surveyed the empirical studies claiming to prove the existence of learning styles and criticized the empirical methods of those studies. Critiquing the methods purporting to prove the existence of a theory is not the same as *proving* its opposite.

Second, the ultimate conclusion of this article is that teachers should not alter their teaching styles in an attempt to comport with diverse learning styles. However, it says nothing about the idea that *students* should focus their out-of-class study efforts upon the study methods that work best for them. One of the problems in legal education is that there are many subtle and not-so-subtle messages telling students that everyone must study the same way. This just is not so, and these messages lead many otherwise capable students to underperform.

Third, even assuming that there is no such thing as learning styles per se, the Rorher study indicates that one empirically proven method of increasing absorption rate is to "mix things up," i.e. that "variety increases attention." Thus, if one studies material in different ways (visual, then auditory, then kinesthetic), one learns better through this variety.

I think the Rorher study should certainly leave us questioning many of our assumptions about teaching. But, dismissing the entire field of learning styles theory solely on account of this study would be like dismissing the Copernican model of the universe just because Copernicus didn't have a stronger telescope.

Posted by: 4thYrLawProf | Aug 30, 2011 6:16:56 PM

I've always thought the "multiple learning styles" theory was bunk. It feels good to have my intuitions confirmed. (I am NOT going to search for contrary evidence).

Posted by: GU | Aug 30, 2011 3:57:31 PM

I make it a point of honor to walk out of anything resembling a Powerpoint presentation. I laugh trying to imagine Socrates, Jesus, Einstein, Fermi, Feynmann or Milton Friedman trying to communicate by means of such, or even relying on a Teleprompter as Barak Obama does.

Posted by: Jimbino | Aug 30, 2011 3:11:26 AM

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