Earlier this summer, one of our WAC co-coordinators shared this article by Paula Moran that aims to debunk the “Learning Styles” myth. The topic of the various ways in which students learn is something we think about a lot in WAC philosophy, since one of the things that we preach is how writing assignments can vary the mode of course content delivery and therefore provide a break from lecture-based teaching.
To be clear, we ourselves have never used the phrase “learning style” in our workshops or other projects, yet the idea is quite similar to much of the ideology behind what we promote and encourage instructors to do. Have we been wrong all this time? Is there no difference between class content delivered orally through lecture and written assignments?
The answer, thankfully, is no. Moran links to another article by renowned educational theorist Howard Gardner who further argues that his famous “multiple intelligences” theory is not the same as “learning styles.” The real issue here is the lack of sound research to show that teaching to different learning styles has any impact on student performance.
However, as Gardner is quick to point out, that does not mean that students all learn in the same way. Student do learn in different ways, and as Gardner notes, “all of us exhibit jagged profiles of intelligences,” meaning that we process different kinds of information differently in our quest to understand something.
So why teach through writing assignments? Because students have different strengths and weaknesses in processing material, it is crucial that we present them with various modes of understanding the class content. How many times have you heard a colleague say, or said yourself, that “I learn better when I write things down.” This is why we take notes and sometimes don’t ever look at them again. This is why we understand a concept more holistically when we teach it rather than just reading or writing about it. This is why we teach “inquiry-based” lessons, where students acquire knowledge through their own questioning. It is because speaking, writing, reading, and listening are all part of a series of interconnected brain processes, rather than all part of the same mono-process.
While we don’t have to go buy the textbook’s eight different versions, “one for every learning style,” we still do our students a service by teaching in different ways. Using writing assignments to deliver course content is one of the most effective tools we have not only to improve our students’ writing by having them do more of it, but also to encourage a deep understanding and retention of the material. Of course, there is a practical reason to teach with writing too: it breaks up the flow of the class and prevents students from losing focus or getting bored. It’s tough to listen to an hour-long lecture intently, even on a topic you are passionate about!
One of my students, who is also a teacher himself, remarked after being asked to free-write about a topic at the beginning of class, “that was nice. I didn’t think about the topic like that until you asked me to write about it.” Exactly.