Edev_502 wk7

[Note: there was no discussion in week 6.]

Learner differences was the topic for this week’s discussion. This was the time to investigate the shady underbelly of the education business. Names are made on the back of ideas that may or may not prove to be supportable by evidence. Defending those names can be a messy affair, and promotion seems to be the methodology of choice.

I chose to focus on the reality that research into psychology (and by extension, education) is not as robust as some would have us believe. Science magazine highlighted this very acutely after the discussion week was over, but I’ll post it here due to its relevance.


Basically, about 100 articles from three top-level journals were selected and redone. The results were surprising: of the 97% of original studies that had positive statistical significance, only 36% of the replication studied repeated the results. Further, the statistical power was around half of the originals.

Two important implications may be derived from this. The first is that (in psychology at least: and a lot of education theories are based on what happens in psychology) we need to be careful about the articles we rely on to build our arguments. The second implication turns the first on its head. If so much of what is believed in psychology is ultimately questionable, the ground is clear for us to bypass the theoretical worries and promote our beliefs more.

I’ll repeat this last point because it’s a powerful one. It may be more beneficial for us to formulate our beliefs at the logical and practical levels as strongly as possible without necessarily being concerned with the ultimate philosophical details.

These views fuelled my initial discussion this week.

I confess to a high degree of ambivalence regarding the idea of educators using unscientific notions in the classroom. Educators as social scientists have a duty to uphold the principles of their discipline. Knowing that the notion of individual differences of learning styles, for example, is supported by weak evidence should lead educators to abandon their use of such distinctions. Evidence-based education and the principles of science require the moral duty of educators to reject those ideas that are not well supported or have been rejected. Yet, at least two factors compel the argument for learning styles. The first is its intuitive appeal. Experienced teachers know that no two students are alike and that there are broad types of student. The second factor continues this experiential knowledge; the categorisation of learner difference into theoretical types offers seductive answers to categorisation problems and to suggest methodologies for dealing with individual differences. In this essay, I attempt to bridge the gap between the duty of the scientist and the intuitive need of the teacher by promoting the idea that even if individual differences in learning style are not evident, their use in the learning paradigm offers both teachers and learners two advantages.

The first is that as educators and learners become sensitised to individual differences, the more avenues to self-authorship via agentive control become possible. Unquestioned assumptions about self-identity can lead to weaker academic performance. Dar-Nimrod and Heine (2006) showed that questioning one’s beliefs about gender and maths ability can lead to increased performance amongst women students. Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master (2006) produced a similar result when they invited African American students to consider racially-induced inadequacy. However, neither of these studies is methodologically secure and would fail the “meshing hypothesis” test set up by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2009), a baseline test that questioned the strength of the interaction effect between the states in individual differences. Very few studies of individual difference attempted a rigorous test of the variables (Pashler et al., 2009), and amongst those that did, Pashler et al. found evidence to “flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis” (p. 105). Coffield (2008, cited in Atherton, 2013) strongly claimed the lack of validity for the popular VAKT learning style approach, following up on his earlier work in which he and his team analysed 71 learning styles and strategies to find using learning styles “too indiscriminating” and their use needs to be “highly selective” (Coffield, Mosely, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004, p. 144; see also Peterson, Rayner, & Armstrong, 2009; Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015).

Although learner style research is hardly unequivocally accepted, it offers a second advantage to educators. The sheer number of studies into learning style have resulted in numerous categorisations and characterisations of the learner (Coffield et al., 2004). Moreover, this proliferation continues. (Kozhevnikov, Evans, and Kosslyn (2014) recognise the methodological faults and attempt to synthesise knowledge from diverse disciplines into a single taxonomy, mirroring Zhang and Sternberg’s unresolved controversial issues in learning styles (2009). The energy resulting from the continued investigation into learning styles may eventually overcome the current theoretical impasse where such powerfully evocative notions, such as Elliot and Dweck’s (1988) growth mind set (‘supported’ by evidence that fails Pashler’s test), can live side-by-side stronger and more inclusive theory. The key questions centre on the importance or not of being able to describe learners’ initial state. Hattie (2009) provides much evidence for the initial state not being an issue. Instead, successful teaching relies on the match between learning goals and “deliberate interventions to ensure” those goals (p. 23). However, it is difficult to imagine how teachers can come to know appropriate “intervention” without some categorisation of the learners they deal with.


Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; Learning styles don’t matter [On-line: UK] retrieved 21 August 2015 from http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/styles.htm.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: a social-psychological intervention. Science (New York, N.Y.), 313(5791), 1307–1310. doi:10.1126/science.1128317

Dar-Nimrod, Ii., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Exposure to scientific theories affects women’s math performance. Science, 314(October), 435. doi:10.1126/science.1131100

Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: an approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(1), 5–12. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.54.1.5

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kozhevnikov, M., Evans, C., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2014). Cognitive Style as Environmentally Sensitive Individual Differences in Cognition: A Modern Synthesis and Applications in Education, Business, and Management. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(1), 3–33. doi:10.1177/1529100614525555

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3).

Peterson, E. R., Rayner, S. G., & Armstrong, S. J. (2009). Researching the psychology of cognitive style and learning style: Is there really a future? Learning and Individual Differences, 19(4), 518–523. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2009.06.003

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271. doi:10.1177/0098628315589505

Zhang, L. F., & Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Perspectives on the nature of intellectual styles. New York: Springer.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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