October 25, 2011

Does Matching A Student's Learning Style Really Help?

by Sara Hummel, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

While browsing the internet, I came across something in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style may not Help Students” by David Glenn.1  This immediately caught my attention.  For the past few weeks we have been discussing learning styles in this course and how knowing the students’ style can positively impact learning.  Now someone proposes that this may not help us at all.  I wanted to know more.

The article refers to a review of the primary literature done by Pashler and colleagues published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.2  The authors contend that there is insufficient scientific evidence supporting the commonly held notion that matching one’s teaching style to your students’ learning style enhances teaching effectiveness. Pashler reports that they found little research regarding learning and teaching styles that used an experimental design.  Glenn’s article points out that other researchers in the field and supporters of learning-teaching style “matching hypothesis” felt that Pashler’s statements seemed biased and “largely ignorant of the field”.

The “matching hypothesis” purports that a student learns best if his/her learning style is matched with a corresponding instructional method.  However, Pashler found little to no evidence in support of the hypothesis.  Indeed, many studies showed contradicting evidence.  Instead, Pashler proposes, that it may be more important to match the instructional method to the content.  In a study by Massa and Mayer, subjects showed no differences in performance when given instructional methods matching their preferred learning style.3  Subjects were given a computer based electronics lesson with help screens either matched or opposite to their learning style preference- either visual (pictures) or verbal (text).  The researchers found no differences in performance among the subjects.  Instead, the experiment found that all learners benefited more from visual than verbal help during the lesson.

Pashler gives another example (that I could well relate to) from a student’s perspective. When teaching molecular structure, students often learn better when taught with stick models (kinesthetic learning) than by reading assigned text book chapters (verbal learning) – regardless of the student’s preferred learning style.  Other examples that come to my mind from personal experience is learning how to take a patient’s blood pressure (highly kinesthetic) or analyzing a poem in a literature class (highly verbal).  The content of the instruction is probably most relevant in terms of deciding what teaching methods to employ – not the students’ preferred learning styles.

Another study done by David W. Laight used concept maps as an instructional tool to teach pharmacy students about health care.4  In his study, Laight asked students to report the usefulness of concept maps and participate in a learning style preference evaluation.  Although this study was not designed to evaluate the "matching hypothesis" per se, the results showed no statistically significant association between the students’ reported usefulness of concept maps and their preferred learning style.  This surprised me, since I would have expected visual learners to prefer such a tool when compared to verbal or kinesthetic learners.

So why should we learn about learning style in this class?  Learning about learning style differences probably makes us better teachers.  Knowing that students have individual preferences for receiving information helps us to be more open-minded and to consider incorporating different instructional methods into our teaching repertoire.

I personally think that Pashler brings up some valid points.  I disagree with his view that there is no basis for matching the instructional method to learning style.  He admits that matching the two results in higher student satisfaction. And we know that motivation is important to learning.

I do, however, agree that not all topics can be taught using any instructional method in an attempt to tailor it to a specific group of students or learning style.  It seems logical to me to teach hands on (aka kinesthetic) topics with “hands on” instructional methods.  It is important that one considers both, the topic to be taught, as well as, the learners’ preferences, before deciding on how to teach the content.


1. Glenn D. Matching teaching style to learning style may not help students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 15, 2009.

2. Pashler H, Mcdaniel M, Rohrer D. Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science In the Public Interest 2009; 9: 105-19.

3. Massa LJ, Mayer RE. Testing theATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizercognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences 2006; 16 : 321-5.

4.  Laight DW. Attitudes to concept maps as a teaching/learning activity in undergraduate healthprofessional education: influence of preferred learning style. Med Teach 2004; 28: 229-33.  

1 comment:

Rebs said...

This article was really very helpful. Thanks for sharing it.