Substance Over Style: Assessing the Efficacy of Modality Testing and Teaching

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 4 describes the following:

Title | Substance Over Style: Assessing the Efficacy of Modality Testing and Teaching

Authors | Kavale, K.A., & Forness, S.R.

Source Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-39.

Year Published | 1987

A literature search identified 39 studies assessing modality preferences and modality teaching. The studies, involving 3,087 disabled and nondisabled elementary/secondary level subjects, were quantitatively synthesized. Subjects receiving differential instruction based on modality preferences exhibited only modest gains.

The idea that students have learning style* preferences makes intuitive sense to many people. Modality teaching theory* suggests that everyone has a specific learning style (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) and that people learn best when taught with educational programs tailored to meet a preferred modality. Modality teaching has maintained widespread popularity for decades despite numerous studies reporting its lack of effect. This meta-analysis looks at modality testing and related programs that teach to students’ preferred learning style in order to determine if these methods are as effective as they are appealing.

Research Questions
The modality model is widely used in general and special education. The research, however, is largely critical of modality assessment and training. This meta-analysis examines the efficacy of the modality model in the instruction of children with Learning Disabilities* (LD).

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 39
  • Number of Subjects | 3,087
  • Years Spanned | N/A

Research Subjects
The average IQ level of all participants was 97.95. Although gender of participants was not reported for all studies, in those studies that did report gender, 62% of participants were male.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Average age of subjects = 8.66 years.
4 studies did not report age of participants; 11 studies only reported a range of ages, with the average age ranging from 5.53 to 15.64 years.

Specified Disability

  • Learning Disabilities (LD)
  • Reading Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disabilities

In order to be included for consideration in this meta-analysis interventions were required to meet 3 criteria:

  • The teacher had to evaluate the students’ learning styles (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) using a standardized or experimental test.
  • Instructional materials and techniques were designed and implemented to capitalize on the child’s learning style as determined in the formal test.
  • The results of modality instruction were assessed with a standardized test.

Duration of Intervention
Modality instruction lasted for an average of 17.38 weeks, with individual instructional periods averaging 1.23 hours.


  • Although teaching students according to their preferred learning style seems logical, there is little evidence that this teaching method improves educational outcomes for students with LD.
  • Neither modality testing nor modality instruction was shown to improve educational outcomes in this meta-analysis.

Combined Effects Size

  • Teaching geared toward a student’s learning preference, or modality, produced an effect size* of 0.144.
  • Researchers found that modality matched to instruction produced an overall effect size of 0.128 on achievement test performance.

Kavale and Forness found that matching children by modality preference or learning style had nearly no effect on achievement. They concluded, “Although the presumption of matching instruction strategies to individual modality preferences has great intuitive appeal, little empirical support for this proposition was found.… Neither modality testing nor modality teaching were shown to be effective” (p. 237).

One of the difficulties in trying to teach to a child’s preferred modality is that it assumes that the other two modalities are not as important, when, in fact, all modalities are used in the learning process. Integrating all three modalities (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) into a lesson communicates and reinforces the material in a variety of ways and may increase learning for all children, regardless of their modality preferences. Teaching only to a child’s preferred modality while excluding the others reduces the child’s opportunities to interact with, learn, and master the material. Kavale and Forness conclude that, despite the popularity in both general and special education of modality and learning style preference models, these methods do not increase student achievement.

To be clear, the results of this work do not suggest that educators should disregard or dismiss individual differences among their students. Indeed students may respond quite differently to different teaching methods and styles, just not in a way that is modality-based.


*Terms Defined

Effect Size (ES or d) | A statistical calculation, often represented as ES or d, that measures the impact of an intervention. An effect size below d = 0.20 suggests that a treatment did not have a significant effect. An effect size of d = 0.20 is considered small or low; an effect size of d = 0.50 is considered moderate; an effect size of d = 0.80 or above is large.

Learning Style | An individual’s typical mode of processing information, perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem solving.

Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

Modality Teaching Theory | The belief that people learn best when taught using their preferred modality (e.g. visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), and that teaching should be designed around students’ learning style preferences.

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