A Tale of Two Chapters…well, one

Way back in the distant past (2007), I was asked to write a couple of chapters in a forthcoming book about digital learning in the humanities. I agreed, and wrote one on Course Management Systems (duh) and one called “Learning With Style”. They were well-documented, yet informational, designed for the new online college instructor.

The second chapter focused on learning styles. I was big into learning styles then, the idea of catering our teaching to hit as many learning styles as possible, based on Gardner’s multiple intelligences. I had even given presentations on the subject, including one at San Diego City College, which I was asked to reprise in 2008.

The chapters disppeared into the void for a couple of years. Then this fall, the editor contacted me. A new editor had been assigned at the publisher, and would I be willing to update the sources and do a little editing in response to her suggestions? Why, sure.

Trouble was (isn’t there always a problem?), I no longer believe what I wrote in 2007 about learning styles. I have, quite simply, changed my mind. (As the saying goes, if you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?)

I was conversing with a colleague at San Elijo, and we were discussing how students on campus have been using their challenges and difficulties in life as justification for not completing their work. My response was, “This is college. They’re here to overcome those things, not wallow in them.” Then I started thinking about learning styles, and how I’d changed what my students do in class in a way that clearly emphasizes writing: gathering evidence and developing a thesis. And how this semester, not for the first time, I had a student say to me, “Well, I’m no good at taking notes from lecture. I’m a visual learner.” But he wasn’t a genuine visual learner — he just liked pictures. He didn’t analyze visuals any better than he did text.

A number of my students have been told that they have a particular learning style already, before they get to me. They are beginning to figure it’s my job to cater to it. But I need them to write, too — we’re doing historical inquiry here. Is it good teaching to let them wallow in their “preferred” learning style?

So I decided to rewrite the chapter. First I wanted “Teaching the Students We Have”, with an emphasis on how students really are today, what they need, how we should teach them. My editor said OK. Then I changed it to “Reducing the Distance in Online Classes”, which involved less rewriting, but reducing the learning styles thing to a small section and bringing in some current research. My editor said OK (he’s quite amiable).

Then I found it. A great new study saying (ta dah!) that there is no evidence that catering to learning styles increases their learning, linked from this post at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Vindicated!