Scientific Teaching: A Review

A colleague who was cleaning out his office gave me a copy of Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sarah Miller, and Christine Pfund (W.H. Freeman and Co., 2008). Intrigued by the title, I gave it a quick read. The book contains some general information on active learning and presents a template for organizing faculty development workshops on topics like assessment, but it was not the guide to effective teaching that I had expected. The book does not discuss empirically-backed research on how people learn. At all.

Instead, Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund favorably discuss learning styles, a zombie educational concept that refuses to die. They heavily reference Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review by Frank Coffield, David Moseley, Elaine Hall, and Kathryn Ecclestone (Learning and  Skills  Research  Centre, 2004) as support for their argument. In the process, they fundamentally mischaracterize the report’s findings.

For example, on page 9, they write that Coffield et al. (2004) “identified over 70 unique approaches to learning styles . . [that] range from models that explain learning styles as innate . . . ‘flexibly stable’ or . . . that contribute to learning efficacy.” Coffield et al. (2004) state very clearly that these are claims made by those who advocate for the concept of learning styles, not that evidence exists for those claims. In fact, when Coffield et al. (2004) examined thirteen commonly used learning-style inventories, they found that twelve did not meet one or more basic criteria for internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity, and predictive validity. They conclude that the field of learning styles ‘‘is bedeviled by vested interests because some of the leading developers of learning style instruments have themselves conducted the research into the psychometric properties of their own tests, which they are simultaneously offering for sale in the marketplace . . . After more than 30 years of research, no consensus has been reached about the most effective instrument for measuring learning styles and no agreement about the most appropriate pedagogical interventions” (p. 137).

The lack of evidence for the existence learning styles was also discussed in detail by Harold Pashler,  Mark McDaniel, Doug  Rohrer, and Robert Bjork in ‘‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’’ (Psychological  Science in the Public Interest  9, 3 [2008]). They note in this article that adjusting teaching  techniques  to students’ expressed preferences for particular forms of instruction (i.e., learning styles) does not correlate to observable cognitive or skill aptitudes, and that only a handful of published studies citing the existence of learning  styles had conducted valid experimental tests. The lack of evidence for learning styles was also discussed in this 2009 interview with the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

In sum, Scientific Teaching‘s reliance on a concept that was widely discredited both before and soon after its publication renders it misleading and, therefore, useless.