Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Re-examining the Barsch Learning Styles Inventory

The Barsch Learning Style Inventory (BLSI) (Barsch learning style inventory) is an assessment used to measure an individual's learning style.  There are many different theories on how people learn and the different types of learners.  The BLSI organizes people into the categories of visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning and is widely used and promoted in school systems.[1]  In theory, by knowing the preferred learning style of the students in a classroom, a teacher can better construct their teaching methods to match and thus help facilitate better learning.  This matching of preferred learning style with the same teaching method is known as the meshing hypothesis(Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008).  In order to meet all of the learning styles present in a group of children a lot of preparation would need to be undertaken by teachers.  However, before working on all these changes, it is important to consider the research on the use of the BLSI which yields mixed results.  Some researchers demonstrate evidence that matching an individual's learning style benefits memory (Korenman & Peynircioglu, 2007) whereas others have found little evidence for the meshing hypothesis (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Pashler et al., 2008; Stahl, 1999).  Ultimately, at this time, there is little foundation for the use of the BLSI in classroom settings.
First, there is little empirical evidence for the meshing hypothesis.  Korenman and Peynircioglu (2007) examined whether learning style influences an individual's ability to learn and remember music.  They did find that participants were better able to remember melodies when the information matched their main style of learning.  However, the results of this study cannot be generalized to other disciplines as the experimenters were looking at short lines of music and poetry.  Other materials such as math, geography or history may not experience the same benefits.  As well, in a classroom setting students would have to be responsible for a lot more information than a couple of lines of text or music notes.
In his paper, Stahl (1999) reports the results from numerous review papers on the use of learning styles with regard to teaching children to read.  In each of the cited papers no significant effect for matching the visual or auditory learning styles with the same type of teaching was found (Stahl, 1999).  Furthermore, Krätzig and Arbuthnott (2006) sought to test the learning style hypothesis by having participants learn material and then complete a test in all three modalities.  The researchers found no evidence for the meshing hypothesis; there was no relation between participants' learning style and the individual memory tasks.  Reported visual learners did not score significantly better on the visual memory task nor did auditory learners on the auditory memory task and the kinaesthetic learners on the kinaesthetic memory test (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006).  Their results do not support the learning style hypothesis.
Second, in order to collect evidence that would provide strong support for use of the BLSI, a certain type of study should be conducted.  According to Pashler et al. (2008), to properly assess theories of learning styles specific criteria need to be incorporated into an experiment.  The learners need to first be divided into their proposed styles and then they need to be randomly assigned to different learning conditions.  The measure of assessment, Pashler et al. (2008) state, needs to be the same across all of the learning groups otherwise the learning benefit could be attributed to the type of test and not the learning styles hypothesis.  The researchers would then need to find an interaction between the learning style and the method used.  Any form of additive results would indicate that one form of teaching is better than the others and would not support the use of the BLSI.  After outlining these criteria, Pashler et al. (2008) conducted a literature review of studies that assessed learning style hypotheses.  Of the countless articles that examined different learning styles, they only found one that could be said to follow these criteria and that study was not examining the use of the BLSI but another learning styles hypothesis.  Both Korenman and Peynircioglu (2007) and Krätzig and Arbuthnott (2006) do not meet these criteria as different testing measures were used depending on the learning modality.  In order to make more conclusive statements regarding the use of BLSI, more research is still needed.
Third, the BLSI has low reliability and validity (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Stahl, 1999).  If the measure was reliable, we would expect the same results from the same participants each time they do the test, but this is not always the case (Stahl, 1999).  The implication is that a person's learning style is constantly changing.  In a classroom setting this would be problematic for teachers as by the time they alter their lessons to match a certain learning style, the children's styles may already have changed.  The BLSI is also more of a measure of what individuals prefer over what they are, meaning it's not a valid measure.  In their second experiment, Krätzig and Arbuthnott (2006) asked participants the reasoning behind their choices in completing the BLSI and found that participants tended to answer the BLSI using their preferences or beliefs about their learning habits.  To be a valid measure of how an individual best learns, the BLSI cannot merely be an assessment of personal experience or preference (Pashler et al., 2008). 
In addition, the items used in the measure are somewhat vague.  For instance, one of the items says, "Do better at academic subjects by listening to lectures and tapes" (Barsch learning style inventory).  This is a very ambiguous sentence and interpretation may differ among individuals.  Consider the following: in scenario one a student who is stronger in English or history courses may think back to his experiences in these types of classes where the teaching style is mainly audio lectures or discussion groups.  In scenario two, a student who enjoys math or chemistry courses may think of the visual diagrams or hands-on labs that she is more likely to see in the science-based courses.  When completing the questionnaire, the students' background experiences and preferences may then influence their interpretation.
In conclusion, research of the use of the BLSI is not substantial enough to endorse the use of the meshing hypothesis in the classroom.  The current research does not show that matching a teaching method to an individual's learning style will facilitate better learning.  As well, more research into the area is needed as the methodology and design of these studies is put into question by Pashler et al. (2008).  However, before more research is conducted, it would the BLSI itself should be reevaluated as it is not a reliable or valid measure. 


Barsch learning style inventory. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2014, from University of Utah School of Medicine: http://medicine.utah.edu/learningresources/tools/barsch_inventory.pdf
Korenman, L., & Peynircioglu, Z. (2007). Individual differences in learning and remembering music: Auditory versus visual presentation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55(1), 48-64.
Krätzig, P., & Arbuthnott, K. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 238-246.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Stahl, S. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. American Educator, 1-5.

[1] As reported by many of the students in Trent University's Psychology 4590 course.  Though the students come from different geographic regions, many reported having learned about or taken the BLSI at a previous level of education.

**This was written February 2014 for a fourth year course at Trent University

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