One idea that comes up again and again is that of learning styles. Of course you have heard about it: some people are visual learners, some people have to hear things to learn them, and some kinesthetic people need to get their whole body into the learning process or nothing sticks. Google these terms–visual, auditory, and kinesthetic–and you’ll get enough hits to make you think that learning styles constitute an established theory in learning.
Unfortunately, that assurance would be misplaced. Daniel Willingham, in When Can You Trust the Experts?, has this to say:
…there is no support for the learning styles idea. Not for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners…The main cost of learning styles seems to be wasted time and money, and some worry on the part of teachers who feel they ought to be paying more attention to [them]…(page 13).
This comes as quite a shock for many people because the idea is so entrenched. “Experts” talk about it often. It is mentioned in countless books and articles. I have heard it many times and repeated it myself. But, nope, it just ain’t so. There is no such thing as a “visual learner.” At least, there is no demonstrated effect in any scientific study. Mariele Hardiman summarizes the myth and the reality nicely in The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model. She cites Pashler et al. (2008), where you can read it yourself if you are still numb in disbelief (citation below). Hattie and Yates have a unit devoted to this myth if you are still not convinced. Great book, by the way.
But your intuition tells you that there are differences between learners. There most certainly are. Every brain is wired differently because of the individual’s experience and their age of development (for children). These developmental differences and experience differences are real and have very real consequences for how we should teach and the best sizes for classes, if we take differences seriously.
Essentially, differences take the form of preferences, preparation, motivation, and pace. According to David Andrews of Johns Hopkins University in the wonderful MOOC named University Teaching 101, students have preferences for the modality (yes, here we can talk about print or video or audio), groupings, and types of assessment and feedback. Students also vary in how prepared they are to learn. All learning involves connecting new knowledge to knowledge already held. If your students lack certain schema or factual knowledge, they will need more time to gain that and the target knowledge. In any given class, motivation differences (often because of prior experience) and time commitments can produce huge differences in the amount of attention and effort students will exert and sustain. Lastly, processing speeds (again because of experience and practice) in reading and auditory processing can make content more or less challenging than the instructor may think it is. Watch any class taking a test to see pacing differences in action. Students finish at very different times, and this is often unrelated to proficiency with the target content.
So, what should an EFL teacher do? Well, smaller classes are a start, but only if you are really planning to do something about it. If you are going to teach to the same middle as always, smaller classes will not necessarily give your students any benefits. Small groupings ranks only #52 in Hattie’s list of effective interventions, probably for this reason. Mr. Andrews suggests personalizing content and delivery as much as possible. He suggests getting to know your students as much as possible, and giving them as much choice as possible in how they learn. This is a delicate balancing act, in my experience. Students can be notoriously bad at understanding themselves, their strengths and weakness, and choosing better strategies. The teacher must push and pull them carefully up to better performance, offering them choices and checking that they are choosing wisely and making sufficient effort to see results. Technology can help a lot here. Recording short lectures/lessons and making them available with transcripts to students can allow slower/less-experienced/different-preference students options for learning and reviewing that can allow them to customize the education experience for themselves. And research has shown that repeated viewing/reading and multi-modal presentation are significantly correlated with better learning; and variety and choice will keep attention better and improve motivation. One crucial part of personalization is personalizing formative feedback (a series of posts on formative assessment starts here). The power of formative feedback in driving learning should not be underestimated, but you need to be close to your students to either do that yourself or teach them or their classmates to do it. This also involves making goals salient to students with clear rubrics, so that they can see where they are going and how they are progressing, and what they need to do to get better. A recent study in math classes at an American university illustrates this. For homework assignments, some students were given formative feedback and follow-up problems based on performance, while the spacing of content repetition was controlled for maximum effectiveness. This small change resulted in a 7% improvement on the short answer section of the final exams! Personalization seems to have that kind of power, if done right.
As Mr. Andrews says, “personalization has become a standard for learning in every part of our lives except school. And it will become a standard in school.” Get ready to hear more and more about it.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Roher, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 109-115.
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