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Learning Styles and Shark Bites

Learning Styles and Shark Bites

How often do people get bitten by sharks in the US? As it turns out, if you had recently heard or read a news story about someone being bitten by a shark your guess would be higher than if you had not read such a story.  We do this all the time - when we have to take a guess we depend on whatever comes to mind the quickest. It's called the "availability heuristic". If you had recently heard about a shark bite or a plane crash, this will increase your estimate as to how often it happens.


It appears the same thing is happening with the idea that students have "learning styles" (typically identified as audio, visual and kinesthetic learners). As mentioned previously here in the community, research has repeated shown that learning style questionnaires are unreliable and even when we try to teach students a topic based on what the tests have identified as that student's learning style, students do not learn any better than when taught using some other style.


Studies have consistently shown that catering to differences in students' preferred learning style does not actually result in any improvement in learning outcomes.


Teachers and Students Don't Agree on Learning Styles


Now we have research showing that teachers and students can't even agree about students' supposed learning styles. Researchers asked teachers to guess what learning style a student had AND they asked the students to identify the learning style they believed they had. The result: relationship between the self-assessments of learning styles by the students and the assessments of the teachers.

Why? Teachers do what we do when they try to assess a student's supposed learning style: we make an estimate and it's usually based on whatever comes to mind first. So if a teacher is asked about a student's learning style, he or she is going to base their decision on some recent interaction with the student (thus the connection to shark bite occurrences).  If the student seemed to get the "ah hah" moment when looking at a diagram, the teacher who believes in learning styles will decide that the student is a visual learner. If the teacher recalls that the student seemed to really understand something after a lecture or conversation the student will be identified as an audio learner. The availability heuristic is at work.


Let's consider what we want students to learn and then choose the best teaching method to achieve that goal. 



  • Start a discussion on learning styles by asking students a few of these trivia questions. Have them write down their answers so that you can later show how much answers vary.
    • How many shark attacks are there on average in the US? (19)
    • How many times does lightening strike and kill someone in an average year (37)
    • OR: "Are you more likely to be bitten by a shark or struck by lightning?" (students who rarely if ever swim in the ocean will probably give a much lower number than students who do swim in the ocean)
    • The odds of you dying in a plane crash are 1 in ________ (1.2 million)

Our guesses on these questions are based on how quickly an example comes to mind (availability heuristic). Which is the same process you use to determine what learning style you think a student has.




If you're thinking, "But shouldn't we alter our instructional techniques based on a particular student's abilities?" Then search for "Differentiated Instruction" in your Cengage MindTap Education text.

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MindTap is included with Cengage Unlimited.