Thursday, January 14, 2010

Learning Styles Questioned

It is almost an article of faith among educators today that law students have different learning styles that should be accommodated in the classrom in order to maximize engagement and learning. A leading article on this subject is Robin A. Doyle and Rita Dunn, Teaching Law Students Through Individual Learning Styles, 62 Albany Law Review 213 (1998), which is available through SSRN. The Doyle and Dunn article, by the way, is cited in the valuable Annotated Bibliography on Law Teaching, which appears in the Fall 2009 issue of Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing. A new study published last month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest is calling into question the theory underlying "matching" students' learning styles with professors' teaching styles. An abstract of the study is here, and an article about the study appears on page one of the January 8, 2010 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. An subscription is required to access the article.

The authors, four psychologists, state that there is "no strong scientific evidence to support the 'matching' idea."

"We were startled to find that there is so much research published on learning styles, but that so little of the research used experimental designs that had the potential to provide decisive evidence," says Harold E. Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego and the paper's lead author.

"Lots of people are selling tests and programs for customizing education that completely lack the kind of experimental evidence that you would expect for a drug ... Now, maybe the FDA model isn't always appropriate for education--but that's a conversation we need to have."

The authors do not dispute that different learning styles exist; they argue, however, that there is no proof that "any particular style of instruction simultaneously helps students who have one learning style while also harming students who have a different learning style." Furthermore, instead of trying to figure out whether a particular classroom contains visual learners, kinesthetic learners, or auditory learners, they content that it would make more sense for professors to match "their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussion." In my own teaching, I prefer to use a combination of methods in order to reinforce the concepts I introduce through lectures and assigned readings. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how one would teach legal research without a hands-on component. As might be expected, the study is very controversial, with critics contending that the four authors did not do a thorough review of the literature that supports "matching" students and professors. Professor Pashler and his colleagues respond, however, they "are still open to the idea that some kinds of matching are actually effective. 'Most of what we're pointing to in this paper is an absence of evidence ... Here's what you have to show--and they aren't showing it. But there may yet be better studies in the future.'"

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