Learning & Motivation: Mindsets

Learning takes work, and we have to engage in work in order to learn something, either formally of informally. Motivation is a big part of learning. Without motivation, we don’t expend the energy necessary to do the work required to learn something. As a result, I will talk about motivation and learning in several posts. In this first post, before we get to the actual motivation theories, I’m going to introduce you to one of the most widespread practices in education, for which there is no evidence whatsoever that it helps learning (you’ll see how it ties in with motivation in tomorrows post).

Learning styles centre on the different ways we perceive the world. When teaching, information can be presented in a number of different ways, such as visually, through the use of pictures, graphs and visualisations, or through audition or sound such as telling a student something. The idea is that individuals like to receive information in a particular way, and so information should be presented in the way preferred by the learner. If a student receives information in their preferred channel, they should learn better.

One of the most widely used instrument to measure a students’ learning preference is Fleming’s VAK/VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading, Kinaesthetic) which determines which learning channel the individual most prefers for receiving information that needs to be learned. After taking the test, both the student and teacher knows which is the learning style most preferred by the learner.

In some recent research (Neuro Myths (edu)), teachers were asked to respond on an agree – disagree scale to the following statement “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”. Over 95% of teachers surveyed agreed with the statement. When I was teaching large first year classes of psychology students, I would ask the students (as a part of a lab) if they had participated in a learning style measurement exercise in the past, and if they knew what style of learner they were. I consistently had well over 90% of the students responding yes to both questions.

It is simply common sense that supports the model. If you get information through the modality that you prefer, you will find it easier to remember and learn the information. Except that actual research tells us that it isn’t true. Not only does it not help, but it actually slightly hinders learning.

As an anecdotal illustration to why it should be avoided, Dylan Willam of the Institute of Education, asked all of us to fold our arms (stop reading, and fold your arms). It is easy and natural, and you have no difficulty doing it. You could think of this as your preferred method of folding. Now, fold your arms the other way (stop reading, and do it). When you do, you will find it more difficult, and you will actually have to think about how to do it. Dylan pointed out that, even if there were evidence for learning styles, teaching someone outside their comfort zone would require more thought. Isn’t that something we would like in a learning situation? We’ll revisit this whole concept later.

At this point, you are probably asking what learning styles have to do with motivation. It must be good, when catering to various learning styles, to vary the presentation of material to make lessons more enjoyable, even if there is no evidence that I learn better in my preferred learning style, isn’t it? I’ll get to that in tomorrows post after considering the work of Carol Dweck, one of the world’s foremost experts on motivation in learning.


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