Welcome back to The Curiosity Concept!
Today’s post is a bit different. Remember back in primary school when your teacher would make you write a ‘recount’ of a school trip or holiday you went on? Well, this post is very similar to that. (If you never had to write a recount, count your blessings, those things were stressful)
A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar at my university called ‘One size doesn’t fit all: Learning beyond the labels‘, where Dr Julie Hulme gave a presentation exploring the idea of learning styles, or rather the myth of learning styles.
Seeing as this blog is about learning, it’s the perfect platform to share the key points of her message. I learned a lot from the seminar that challenged some of my conceptions of learning and this post shares 3 of her main points which I believe anyone can benefit from.
Hopefully, this will be informative and insightful. As always, feel free to share your questions/comments/random thoughts on today’s post!
Learning styles don’t exist
The concept of learning styles may be one that you are familiar with and it’s one that I included in my first ever post, ‘How To Survive First Year‘.
It’s the idea, usually introduced to students in high school, that everyone has a particular method of learning that suits them best. These methods are labelled according to the broad categorisations of visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning – the VAK model of learning.
In line with this model, I would label myself as a ‘visual person’, for example, when I’m choosing food from a menu, I imagine what the food will look like. An auditory person would talk through all the menu options with themselves or the person they’re with, and a kinesthetic person would imagine the taste of the food on the menu.
These notions of how we generally behave then get applied to how we learn: if I’m a visual person, I’ll ‘obviously’ be better at reading and creating mindmaps than an auditory person, who would prefer to learn by listening to verbal explanations in lectures or through podcasts.
From this general perspective, the idea of learning styles seems to make sense right?
Well, think again.
As Dr Hulme explained, there are numerous problems with learning styles:
- Learning styles lead to pigeon-holing: when you label yourself according to the VAK model, you risk exclusively using the methods associated with your style. This means that you might not develop other useful skills through different ways of learning.
For example, imagine a self-identified kinesthetic learner who doesn’t like to read and therefore doesn’t do their course reading. They can have as many group study sessions as they like, where they participate in teaching and learning with their friends, but if they don’t actually read anything, their understanding will be severely limited to their own ideas. A downside to this is that they deprive themselves of the opportunity to develop the skills to pick out information from other people’s work and come across new thoughts that can inspire their own.
- Learning styles can induce cognitive illusions: linked to the above point, if we’re only ever using methods in line with our ‘style’ we can start to think we’re learning and developing when, in fact, we’re not. I can sit and read for hours and think I’ve understood something, but then as soon as I’m asked to explain it…I’ve got nothing.(This actually happened in my Contract Law seminar this week. I apparently did not know as much about the doctrine of privity as I thought I did)
- Learning style surveys lack validity: Dr Hulme pointed out that there is no neuropsychological evidence to actually support the existence of learning styles, so learning style tests lack validity – what they claim to test or reflect has not been scientifically proven to exist. VAK tests only tell us what our behavioural preferences are, rather than our learning styles. (Side note: her discussion about questionnaires, surveys and validity brought back a flood of A Level Psychology memories and a whole lot of mixed feelings)
All of these ‘cons’ of the VAK model became self-evident when she gave us a VAK test to complete during the seminar. All the questions only had 3 answer options, each clearly indicative of a VAK style, but for some of the questions, I wanted to answer with ‘none’ or ‘all of the above’. These responses were not options. (Here’s a link to the test if you’d like try it for yourself: VAK Learning Styles Quiz)
Dr Hulme then presented us with research from Allock and Hulme (2010), which concluded that learning styles don’t bring any added value to students’ learning, i.e. in this study, the use of learning styles didn’t lead to students attaining better test results than those who didn’t use learning styles. So, learning styles might not even facilitate better learning.
Following this explanation of the myth of learning styles, Dr Hulme introduced the ideas of learning approaches and mindsets:
Learning approaches and mindsets are a more suitable way of conceptualising learning
Unlike the learning styles idea which pushes students into pre-defined categories, these ideas are much less restrictive.
The idea behind the learning approaches concept is that we shift between different states or situations, and so can utilise different methods of learning to suit the situation we are in.
There’s the deep approach, which involves critiquing and analysing the information we are presented with. ‘Why‘ and ‘how‘ questions are asked to engage with it critically, and an example of when you might use a deep learning approach is when doing assessed work, e.g. an essay or a presentation, that asks you to ‘discuss‘, ‘evaluate‘ or ‘analyse‘ the subject matter.
Then there’s the surface approach, where you engage with the information as it is. This may be when you need to memorise facts for a multiple choice test. Dr Hulme gave the example of revising for the car theory test. If you’ve experienced this, you’ll know that you don’t need to know why the speed limit on a dual carriageway is 70mph, you just need to know that it is.
Dr Hulme taught that we don’t always need to use a deep approach when learning, but at the same time, we should appreciate that a surface approach isn’t enough for some situations. Utilising both can help to add value to our learning experiences. More so than restricting ourselves to non-existent learning styles.
This concept is all about the way that you think and the attitude you have towards your learning.
The fixed mindset is restrictive. For example, you might take an exam and get a low mark in it. With a fixed mindset, you will accept that you failed and not see an opportunity to improve. I had a very fixed mindset when it came to GCSE Statistics, where because my coursework was going badly, I was convinced that the exam would go the same way and…it did. (But I had the choice to do Further Maths instead so I had a bit of an escape route).
On the other hand, a growth mindset doesn’t see failure as the end of the road. If I’d had a growth mindset 5 years ago (5 years ago?!) with Statistics, I would have:
- directly asked my teacher how I could do better
- asked my friends who were doing well how they understood what we were doing
- watched YouTube videos of others explaining statistics at a more suitable pace
Note that with the growth mindset, it’s not even the end product that matters overall – the grade isn’t the be all and end all. It’s the process of learning and developing yourself that matters.
Before I move on to the final point of Dr Hulme’s message, here is one of my favourite videos about adopting a growth mindset from one of my favourite content creators on YouTube, Freedom In Thought:
I do my best to adopt and maintain a growth mindset now.
Even though it does get hard, I try not to see a learning challenge as an impenetrable brick wall. Instead, challenges are like hurdles in a marathon (arguably, a never-ending marathon). I know that it is possible to get over the hurdles, so I do what I can to get over them. As I overcome each one I’m better prepared to face the next one. And so the marathon continues…
Learning is not supposed to be ‘easy’
This is a concept that had already been on my mind before the seminar, but it still caught me off guard (read: I was shook) when Dr Hulme literally said,
learning does not have to make you smile
It reminded me of an article, ‘The difficulty is the point‘, which expresses the idea that the experience of
- struggling to read and to understand;
- asking questions that only give rise to more questions than answers; and
- not being able to solve problems because they are seemingly unsolvable
– this experience is the entire point of learning and studying. Because at some point you will understand, you will get answers and you will solve the problems.
Dr Hulme emphasised that learning is good because it grows our capacity to understand and do something with what we’ve learnt, not simply because teachers give us a mark at the end.
So, linking back to the example I gave about the kinesthetic person who doesn’t like to read – sorry, but our friend will have to learn to read, and not just the fun stuff with colour and pictures. It might be hard and boring at first, but if they have a growth mindset they’ll be encouraged to just keep going.
As someone once said,
Never understimate the inevitability of gradualness
Acknowledge, but don’t run away from, the difficulty.
You’ll get better at it, and then you’ll be able to transfer your new skills to something that you truly enjoy.
I realise that this was a long post, but I had so much to share.
Learning is such a complex and versatile process and I can’t really get away with just writing a few lines of ‘5 easy life hacks for going from all Fs to straight-As’ then throwing up a peace sign.
You, dear reader, deserve more for taking the time to visit The Curiosity Concept.
onwards and upwards!