Learning Styles is dying: Is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) the solution?

By Anne Reardon-James

I too, am sure like you many of you, was indoctrinated with the cult of learning styles during teaching college. It seemed such a neat theory – find out whether your learners have visual, auditory, read-write or kinesthetic (VARK) preferences and adapt your teaching style to suit. It was fun to give new learners a learning styles quiz to fill out during the induction and share results with the group. It also made you think about your own learning style biases too and reminded you as a tutor to make sure you weren’t just facilitating learning using a single method of delivery.

Popularised in the 1970s, learning styles were advocated by theorists such as Fleming, Honey and Mumford. But now, more recently we are being told that these ideas in fact do not have validity in education and are based on ‘neuromyth’. This critique is based on research developments, advanced knowledge and understanding in neuroscience. These ideas are being replaced with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), first defined by David H. Rose, which proposes a set of new principles to meet learners’ diverse needs. According to UDL, curriculum should provide:

Multiple means of representation – with various ways of acquiring knowledge,

Multiple means of expression – providing learners with alternatives for demonstrating learning; and

Multiple means of engagement – to motivate learning with appropriate challenge.

What does this mean in practical terms? At first glance, UDL knits together well with digital pedagogies. The explosion in digital literacy tools and techniques, accelerated during the Covid pandemic, has enabled a vast array of ways for multiple means of representation, expression and engagement. Learners now have quite a choice of

learning methods available either in person, online, hybrid, independently or in groups, using anything from traditional textbooks, handouts and worksheets to YouTube videos and experiential ‘learning by doing’. Similarly, assessments to demonstrate learning could be vlogs, blogs, recorded professional discussions, Kahoot quizzes, infographics…the list is endless. Engaging with learners is no longer simply in structured in-person tutorials and sessions, but can be carried out via virtual forums, Zoom, Teams or Googlemeet calls.

So now when I introduce learning styles to trainees (as it is still in the standards for many introductory teaching qualifications) I use a strong note of caution against pigeon-holing and encourage learner choice and creativity in learning and assessment. Essentially teaching and learning needs to be inclusive and multi-modal, with variety to meet the different needs and preferences of learners. Based on constructivist theory, many argue that learning should be co-created through collaboration, and ownership taken of learning by adult learners. This seems to make good sense. I first ‘cut my teeth’ in adult community learning (ACL), where a democratic model of learning was advocated by those such as Freire, in contrast to the ‘banking model’ of assuming learners are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge from the teacher. Adult learners have many options of engaging with learning for themselves.

However, is there is a danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’? I am enjoying experimenting with putting UDL principles into practice, but the main challenge I am finding is encouraging learners to take risks and try out different digital tools to demonstrate learning. Offering choice to learners for them to express their learning can often mean that they stick to assessment methods that they know. What do you think about UDL as a framework for inclusive practice? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. @areardonjames

This blog was written as a draft formulation of the author’s ideas before submitting her contribution to the new open source journal Future FE Pedagogies. Anne would welcome your thoughts, ideas and comments to help her extend her thinkpiece. You can share them via a Mentimeter poll here: https://www.menti.com/alu2o1cdvhne

1 Comment

  • Mark Walker says:

    re Constructivism. When I completed my CMALT portfolio I included this in my essay:

    … critics of these theories [constructivism and connectivism] argue it is a mistake to view them as a pedagogy at all. Mike Hobiss in a blog post on this topic notes that:

    “the leap from learning theory to pedagogy is not justified. Constructivism, as conceived purely as a theory of learning by Piaget, was not designed to be associated with any specific pedagogical approach. More importantly, the raft of neuroscientific evidence supporting the theory of ‘neuro-constructivism’ actually, in my view, provides strong evidence to suggest the opposite, that constructivist pedagogies are unlikely to be the most effective approaches to learning”[1].

    Constructivism notoriously ignores evidence about how the brain actually works: “there is no recognition of the brain’s working or long-term memory, let alone the profound differences between novice and expert learners” (Gustasfson, 2019). Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written extensively on the need for students to have good background knowledge before being able to engage in so-called “critical thinking” tasks – factual knowledge is a requirement for thinking about a problem, factual knowledge improves memory, and most “critical thinking” is actually memory retrieval not original thought (Willingham, 2009, pp. 37-43).

    Constructivism also ignores the difference between long-term and working memory: the aim of learning is to “alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned” (Kirschner S. C., 2006, p. 77) . Unfortunately for constructivism, discovery learning or minimal guidance for students places a huge strain on the working memory, which is very limited:

    “Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information is unlikely to be effective. Recommendations advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or, if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information, the very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures. We know that problem solving, which is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance, called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory.” (Kirschner S. C., 2006, p. 77)

    1. “Constructivism is a theory of learning, not a theory of pedagogy. Neuroscience explains why this is important”:

    Gustasfson, J., 2019. Deconstructing Constructivism: A Widely Misunderstood and Misapplied Theory of Learning. [Online]
    Available at: https://mrgmpls.wordpress.com/2019/01/08/deconstructing-constructivism-a-widely-misunderstood-and-misapplied-theory-of-learning/

    Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E., 2006. Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), pp. 75-86.

    Willingham, D. T., 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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