Review: Learning Styles

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By Gerry Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

Aïda Alaka, Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston Law Review 133 (2011) [Read fulltext at SSRN (3.1 MB PDF)]

Professor Alaka’s provocative article explores the controversy about the concept of “learning styles.” In doing so, Professor Alaka discusses two recent assessments of the theoretical and empirical bases that underlie the learning styles field and their implications for legal educators.”

Broadly defined, learning styles are “those cognitive, affective, and psychological behaviors that indicate how learners interact with and respond to the learning environment and how they perceive, process, store, and recall what they are attempting to learn.” Although many law journal articles assume that learning styles are valid and supported by a significant body of research, Professor Alaka demonstrates that the concept of learning styles has always been controversial. “Many education psychologists and others involved in researching educational theories are highly critical of the notion that students possess fixed learning styles that teachers must address in order for students to learn.”

Professor Alaka sets out a number of criticisms educational researchers direct at proponents of learning styles schemes. One criticism is that a significant amount of the research underlying learning style models has been done by those who developed the models, and who have a strong commercial interest in establishing the validity of the models. A second criticism is the lack of empirical support for the “matching hypothesis” – that teachers should adapt their courses and class sessions to address specific learning styles of their students.”

Despite the criticisms of some uses of learning styles concepts, Professor Alaka concludes her article by recognizing the benefits of the learning styles literature for legal education.

  • “[I]f learning style assessments are presented as a way to measure preferences or habits rather than immutable ‘styles,’ they could assist law students in recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in how they approach their legal studies.”
  • “By considering the diversity of learners in their classroom, law faculties are developing creative and active exercises designed to enhance the acquisition of critical legal skills.”
  • “The use of a variety of teaching methods is more likely to develop the different skills lawyers regularly use than any single method.”
  • Finally, “the focus on learning theory generally, as well as learning styles specifically, enhances the professional skills of law school faculty who had no background in education theory before joining the academy.”
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