Good day Dr Felder,
I hope this finds you well. I’m a graduate student conducting research into learning styles and blended learning. A question was raised in my discussion group and I thought I could ask you for your thoughts.
Throughout literature there is an abundance of articles that state that learning styles are about balance; however, none define what balance really is, and I was wondering if you’d be able to shed some light on this for me. Is a balance a completely equal distribution among techniques that might address different learning styles, or is it mainly about teaching each student in a way that matches his or her learning style? If I’m teaching a class of students in which, say, 80% of the time I present facts and data (sensing) and 20% of the time I discuss fundamental principles and theories (intuitive), would this be considered balanced instruction? If so, under what circumstances? Any information would be greatly appreciated.
Have a good day.
I wrote some of the articles Steven mentioned, and so his questions weren’t a total surprise. I don’t remember ever getting them quite that directly, though, and they forced me to clarify the concept of balance in my own mind. I’ll pass along my response to him in a minute, but first here’s a little background.
Learning styles are students’ preferences for different types of instruction, usually expressed as opposing categories. For example, one learning style dimension Steven mentioned is sensing/intuitive. Intuitive learners tend to prefer teaching that stresses general principles, theories, and mathematical analysis, and sensing learners prefer concrete facts and observations, hands-on experiments, and real-world applications. The preferences are just that—preferences, which may be strong, moderate, or almost non-existent, not either-or labels. While certain skills tend to characterize sensing learners and others are more linked to intuitors, knowing that students prefer sensing tells you nothing about their intuitive skills, or for that matter, about their sensing skills.
For reasons I’ve never understood, some academic psychologists are hostile to the concept of learning styles. Every year or two they publish papers announcing that teaching to match students’ learning styles has never been shown to improve learning, so learning styles should never be taken into account when designing instruction.
As I pointed out a few years ago in a short article [“Are learning styles invalid? (Hint: No)”], there are several flaws in that proclamation. Most of them are off the topic of this post, and if you’re interested you can check them out by clicking on that link. The one relevant one is that modern proponents of learning styles don’t propose matching teaching to students’ learning styles. In fact, they explicitly advise against trying to do so (for one thing, it’s impossible in a class of more than about two), suggesting instead that the goal should be to teach in a way that balances style preferences rather than matching them for individual students.
And that gets us back to Steven and my response to his questions.
The point of seeking balance among learning styles when designing instruction is to avoid heavily favoring any category of a learning style dimension. In balanced instruction, students are taught sometimes in ways that match their preferences and sometimes in ways that don’t. When that approach is taken, the students are not too uncomfortable to learn, as some would be if they were never taught in the ways they prefer. At the same time, they’re all sometimes taught against their preferences, which helps them build important skills they might never develop if they were only taught as they prefer.
Balancing instruction doesn’t mean distributing it equally between opposite categories of learning style dimensions. There’s no simple recipe: the appropriate balance in a course depends on the course subject and level. For example, if I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course in a STEM subject, I’d be inclined to put a heavy emphasis on real-world applications and basic computational methods (sensing), and a lower emphasis on abstract theories and mathematical modeling (intuitive). On the other hand, if I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate or graduate course on the same subject, where I can presume that the entering students have a pretty good understanding of the basics and now I want them to dig deeper into theory and high-level analysis, I’d flip the balance—heavy on intuition, light on sensing. I still need some sensing, though: every body of knowledge, no matter how abstract, is in the curriculum because it’s ultimately needed to address real-world problems. Also, I always have some sensors in the class who are helped by the real-world anchoring to learn the theory.
The need for balance applies equally well to other learning style dimensions. If all you normally do is lecture in class sessions (ineffective for most learners but possibly more so for active learners than for reflective learners), your teaching effectiveness can be increased by adding some individual activities (reflective) and small-group activities (active) to your classes. Knowing that about 80% of the students in most classes are visual learners (see “Applications, Validity, and Reliability of the Index of Learning Styles”), to whom a picture is worth a thousand words, should prompt you to replace a lot of those bullet-point lists in your slides with visuals—diagrams, plots, photos, videos, animations, simulations, etc. And so on.
So how can you determine the right balance for a class you teach? The way you learn to do almost everything in teaching—trial and error. The first time you teach a course, pick a learning styles model (such as the one at the web link in the last paragraph) and take your best shot at striking the right balance for each dimension. What happens in that offering will give you good clues about how to modify the balances next time you teach that course. By the third time you teach it, you’ll probably have it pretty much where you want it.
Finally, when you make changes in a course, make them gradually. If you abruptly try to switch an entire course from, say, mostly intuitive to mostly sensing and mostly verbal to more evenly balanced between visual and verbal, you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes and the challenges of teaching a whole course in a new way. Make the changes in more gradual steps, never going too far out of your comfort zone, and your teaching will steadily improve, which is all you really need.