Learning styles and science labs

Science labs are not for all people.

I've always enjoyed teaching lab courses, so some of you might find it strange that I agree with some of the comments from Steve Gimbel and fellow Sb'ers on the questionable benefits of laboratory courses in introductory physics. But you see, I wasn't very impressed with the undergraduate physics labs that I took either. And with a little reminiscing, it's pretty easy to pick out example labs where the kindest description is "time-waster."

This wasn't true of all my lab courses. My biochemistry and microbiology lab courses were phenomenal, and, it's almost embarrassing, but to this day, I open my toothpaste the way I learned in micro lab. Yep. I open my toothpaste like I'm preparing to inoculate a culture.


Good or bad, this discussion that everyone has been having about the value of labs, seems to be walking right by some very basic reasons for why we have lab courses in the first place and why lab courses don't always accomplish the goals that instructors (and students) have in mind.

Why use lab courses at all?
I can easily list of many of the benefits that can be obtained from science labs, but today, I'm going to concentrate on one, lab courses improve learning by reaching students with different learning styles.

Lab courses and learning styles
When you're a student, and you're thinking about yourself, it's easy to think that if a lab course didn't do it for you, that they (the labs) are a waste of time. You may even apply the same kind of reasoning in other areas of life, and think that clothing stores needn't bother with other sizes, nor bookstores sell genres that you don't read.

Once you make the transition from the desk to the podium, however, you begin to appreciate that students are individuals and different students learn in different ways. These ways are described as "learning styles." The names of the learning styles seem vary a bit depending on the people who are writing about them, but there are some common features. Each student has a preference for one type or another. This preference can be stronger or weaker. If student has a very strong preference for one method, they become quite uncomfortable when an instructor uses another method for conveying information.

Auditory, kinesthetic, and visual
When I first encountered learning styles in a course on teaching, I was told there were three main types. Kinesthetic learners acquire information best through hands-on activities and "doing things." Visual learners do best when they can see diagrams or pictures. Auditory learners do well with lecture classes but have a harder time when confronted with diagrams or flow charts.

Although, my students generally aren't aware that they have preferences, it became clear, when I was teaching, that I could probably tell, by knowing a student, which style they preferred. Students themselves usually aren't aware that there are different learning styles but when you're an instructor, you see it in action and even start to recognize it in yourself. I know that I'm very dependent on visual information. If I'm supposed to do something, I can't be content with verbal instructions, I'm just not happy until the instructions are in writing and I can carry them around on a piece of paper.

Richard Felder and Linda Silverman expand these and additional styles at their NCSU web site. They discuss preferences for active (kinesthetic) vs. reflective learning, sensing vs. intuitive learning, visual vs. verbal (auditory), and sequential vs. global. They even have a test that you can take to find out which style you prefer. My results are below:


You can even take the test yourself and find out your preferred style.

Why should you care about learning styles?

Richard Felder and Linda Silverman describe what can happen. Here's how the students react when there's a mismatch between the style of instruction and their preferred learning style:

...the students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the courses, the curriculum, and themselves, and in some cases change to other curricula or drop out of school.

Here's how the instructors react:

Professors, confronted by low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance and dropouts, know something is not working. They may become overly critical of their students (making things even worse) or begin to wonder if they are in the right profession.

and here's the consequence:

Most seriously, society loses potentially excellent professionals.

This is not to say that you can't learn to use multiple learning methods, or that students don't already balance multiple methods. I think that using a particular learning style is like being right-handed. You do it without thinking. But if you're right-handed and you break your arm, you're like a person in a class that's mismatched with your learning style. You have a harder time adapting to working with your left-hand, but you can do it. Adapting to use a different learning style is the same kind of thing.

If you're a student, it's good to know this kind of information because there are strategies you can use to strengthen your other learning styles or to adapt what you're learning to fit the style you prefer. If you're a teacher, you should know how to teach so that you reach people with all three of the major styles of learning (visual, auditory, kinesthetic).

And now, at last, here's the tie-in to lab courses. Lecture courses favor students with strong verbal and auditory learning skills. Where lecture courses strongly favor auditory (verbal) learners, lab courses are the best learning avenues for kinesthetic and visual learners.

Most of the posts that I've read on this subject, of whether lab courses are valuable or not, seem to come from the standpoint of "what did the course do for me." Most of the writers (with some exceptions), seem oblivious to the notion that the education system tries to serve multiple students. While a "one-size-fits-all" academic system works for some students, it weeds out many others.

Would it really make sense to cut lab courses, and limit academic success to the group of people who've mastered a certain learning style?

More like this

There's a little tangent in the course design tutorial I'm working through, and I think it's worth considering outside the context of any particular course. How are my students different from me, in terms of how they learn best? The tutorial uses the Index of Learning Styles to get participants…
Janet pointed me to a post at the Philosopher's Playground about doing away with laboratory courses in the science curriculum. Steve Gimbel, the philosopher doing the playing, teaches at Gettysburg College. He argues that the lab portions of science classes cause non-science majors to avoid those…
Do you like my title? I will make a connection in just a bit. This post is mostly about online colleges. I saw on TV that Kaplan now has online courses. So, what do I think about that? Here are some points. Some people can learn online I think this is an important starting point. Yes, there…
"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." -William Arthur Ward Every so often, people get up-in-arms about teaching and education in college. New studies come out, new methods are touted and tried, curricula get revised,…

I am really glad you wrote this. I thought about including this but my post was getting too long and my point was somewhere else entirely so I decided against it. You did it much better than I possibly could have. I am also glad you are using the NCSU site - that is a place where a lot of innovation in lab-teaching has been going on for a while now.

This question confused me:

I prefer the idea of
(a) certainty.
(b) theory.

By "theory" do they mean models and abstractions?

Bora -
Thanks! I was thinking of you when I wrote about teachers who understand about trying to reach all students.

Yes, that's it exactly. "Certainty" would apply to the kinds of problems you solve in math and chemistry; 2 + 2 always equals four. Theory would refer to ideas that are supported by evidence, but certainly more abstract, and less granular.

I had very interesting results when I took this test. I scored "between the ones" on three of the scales -- but a perfect 11 as a verbal rather than visual learner.

I suspect we visual-phobes are extremely rare in the sciences.

Learning styles while offering a tidy solution for the complex task of teaching has just a few problems. This post is a useful source of info.

Hi Sandra Porter,

I stumbled upon your post on learning styles just after I revisited the blog of Elisabeth Camp. url: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~campe/
I read some of her work last year, and thought it was very interesting. I was writing a not so scientific but readable book being a concerned parent. I'm busy trying to get teachers to understand about learning styles and other scientific facts basic for education in the Netherlands. We're many who rise the awareness and follow in footsteps of Piaget, who didn't only talk about structuralism, but also about how education should be constructed itself out of scientific knowledge.
I hope your article will find it's way to many pupils, schools, teachers.


I agree, in order to be a good teacher, you need to be able to accomodate all three major learning styles of visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

By Richmond Hill … (not verified) on 30 Aug 2009 #permalink