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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.

Valued Contributor

Hey Michael, Another fine contribution - thank you for sharing this information on the availability heuristic. I especially found interest when you mentioned "...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". Then, realizing I have engaged in the use of the the availability heuristic - enlightening! ML


Very interesting Michael, I try to adapt my courses to all types of learning styles. In IT this is generally easy, as we can adopt hands-on learning, audio learning, visual learning, and if the student prefers to read on their own they can do it. It would be very difficult to try to access each different. I believe one would hope that at least one of those styles work for the student. 

I've had several conversations with people about the availability heuristic. It really does affect the way people perceive the world and probabilities without them even realizing it. I think I'm going to add the lightning strike and shark attack questions to my class survey to have some fun data to play with 🙂
Valued Contributor

This is interesting. I have recently started investigating the effect of learning styles on student performance, help-seeking behavior and self-selection of certain things in a course and also on differences in behaviors between online and traditional face-to-face classes. I would definitely try to include your questions in my next round of survey to see what kinds of data I get. I seem to believe that learning styles do play a role in student performance and success although the reliability of the questionnaires is definitely an issue of contention. Thanks for sharing!

Frequent Commenter

One hears about "learning styles" every now and again; and in the next breath there's usually a caveat along the lines of "yeah, but this doesn't really work that way in practice..." The devil's advocate in me generally wonders if students use this ("your teaching doesn't work with my learning style") as an excuse for not wanting to do the work, or (worse!) for not understanding material and therefore a justification for not trying to grasp it.


As the accompanying Scientific American article ("Enough with the "Learning Styles" Already!") points out (and the comments to that article add more), there's a danger in trying to pander to one perception of how a student might grasp something.... Undoubtedly some approaches work better for one student than for another (that much becomes clear within the first few days of teaching experience!) but I'd like to hear more on what does work!