Skeptic » Insight » The Myth of Learning Styles

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


banner

The Myth of Learning Styles

Posted on Dec. 19, 2014 by | Comments (47)

While certain content may benefit from being presented in a particular way, there is no evidence that learning is enhanced by changing the mode of presentation to match students learning preferences.  DNA Origami by Alex Bateman, Image © Duncan Hall, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.com

Looking at how students study, it is obvious that people approach learning in different ways. Some students like to read the textbook once through, some highlight and annotate the textbook extensively, some write and rewrite their notes, others record and play back lectures, others still make and review flashcards, and so on… But what do these differences in study strategies reflect? There are many possibilities. They may reflect variations in the way that people learn, or it may reflect differences in work ethic or learned habits. Researchers have mistakenly interpreted these differences in preference to reflect differences in the way that people learn and learning styles has become a popular and widespread pedagogical approach.

The main claim or hypothesis associated with the learning styles approach is that matching instructional style to individual learning styles will yield superior learning. A 2012 survey of educators in the UK and Netherlands revealed that 94% believed that students perform better when they receive instruction in their preferred learning style. Aspiring educators are being taught that instruction should be tailored to the distinct learning styles of students. Management and business programs are also increasingly propagating this claim in the context of workplace.

Perhaps this idea has taken strong hold because it is an appealing one. It is consistent with our desire to perceive ourselves as individuals, it is a positive and optimistic proposition that each person has equivalent potential to learn if the instruction can be matched to their individual learning style, and it also places the responsibility for students’ achievement (or lack thereof) on the teachers and the educational system rather than the students.

What evidence is there that this approach, around for a few decades now, affects learning outcomes? Hardly any.

Before the style of instruction can be tailored to individual students’ learning styles, each student’s learning style must be assessed. No shortage of commercial and non-commercial assessment instruments have been developed and there are almost as many different models of learning styles theories as there are assessment instruments. One of the most popular is the “VAK” model which proposes that there are three types of learners: visual learners who learn best by reading and seeing, auditory learners who excel by listening and speaking, and kinesthetic learners whose optimum performance is achieved by touching and feeling. Kohb’s learning theory divides learners into four types: accommodating, diverging, converging, and assimilating. The Honey-Mumford model classifies students as activists, reflectors, theorists, or pragmatists. In the Herrmann Brian Dominance model learners are categorized as theorists, organizers, innovators, or humanitarians. Even models and instruments developed for completely different purposes (each with its own problems) such as the theory of Multiple Intelligences and the Myers-Briggs typography have been adapted for the purpose. Anyone who has taken these tests (and readers who have not are encouraged to do an internet search for a learning styles test) may have experienced some frustration in trying to answer some items because sometimes “it depends.” In addition to often including question items that lack context, the entire idea that a person has an individual style of learning, fails to consider context by ignoring the possibility that the optimum learning strategy may depend on the material that needs to be learned. For instance, the misguided tweet below exemplifies a very poor strategy for learning vocabulary for all learners.

A search of the literature on learning styles reveals thousands of journal articles, books, conference presentations, magazine articles, websites, and so on. The sheer volume of the literature may suggest that the hypothesis at the heart of the theory, that matching instructional style to students’ learning style leads to improved learning, has been well studied, but that would be incorrect. Scholars who have taken inventory of this literature have noted that the vast majority of it is theoretical and descriptive in nature rather than empirical and tends not to appear in peer-reviewed journals. Worse still, very few of the empirical studies were methodologically strong and featured a randomly assigned control group. The few remaining studies, including this most recent one, do not support the learning styles hypothesis. 

At best, the instruments which purportedly measure learning styles really just measure studying preferences. What’s more, a growing body of psychological research on metacognition demonstrates that our beliefs about how we process information and how we learn can actually be quite wrong, with people predicting superior performance with instructional methods that ultimately produce inferior results. Therefore objectively-measured improvements in performance, rather than self-reported perceptions of effectiveness, are ideal.

An evidence-based approach is necessary to prevent wasteful spending on ineffective educational interventions. Learning styles theory, despite its continued popularity, has failed to produce sufficient evidence of being a valuable educational tool. By focusing on teaching to students’ strengths this approach misses an important opportunity to encourage students to work on developing their weaknesses as well. The learning styles approach also provides an excuse for poor performance to the detriment of students who will not recognize the need to make changes or seek help.


References:

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology: Educational Psychology, 429, 1-8.

Gardner, Howard. “Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages.” Phi Delta Kappan 77 (1995): 200-200.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3),105-119.

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2014). Matched learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-15.

Ani Aharonian

Ani Aharonian is a cognitive psychologist and PhD student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where she has focused on cognition and the intersection of law and psychology, specifically eyewitness identifications and testimony, memory, and learning. She currently works as an institutional researcher at Santa Monica College where she helps support and promote evidence-based approaches to planning and assessment. Read Ani’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.

47 Comments

  1. Yolanda Troncoso says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for saying this. I teach at a high school and this nonsense even occurs in our teacher evaluations. We have to demonstrate that we are incorporating students’ “learning styles” in our lesson plans and lesson designs. The state produced evaluation protocol specifically lists this.

    Students and parents regularly come and tell me that the reason they are not earning they grade they feel they deserve is because I don’t design lessons for their “learning style”. I then pull out my list of articles on the lack of evidence for learning styles. They just look at me and 1) get incensed; 2) tell me I am a bad teacher because I refuse to accommodate their child and his/her learning style; and 3) stomp off to complain to the principal or assistant principal. The problem is that my articles are better than theirs–when they have anything to support their claims. And they usually don’t. They just have a personal conviction. And they usually don’t read anything I give them.

    Unfortunately, colleagues aren’t much more informed than the students and parents. Last year, the counseling department wanted to start our homeroom classes (called advisories) by having students do a “learning style inventory”. I pointed out that there was no good evidence for the existence of learning styles but the counselor insisted that it was a good investment of student time because “at least it gave them something to think about”. Okay. By that standard, we could have given them anything that would have gotten them to “think”. During “small learning communities” discussions with other teachers, my colleagues regularly bandy about this nonsense about how the lesson they are demonstrating has things for visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. I then bring out my articles. Everyone kind of acknowledges what I say and pull back on the nonsense but then during the next session someone presents a lesson for different learning styles–again.

    I like your article because it is succinct and to the point. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m adding it to my collection.

    • Noemi says:

      What Yolanda said. Exactly what Yolanda said.

    • Raúl Hernández says:

      Hello Mrs. Troncoso.

      I´m a teacher in South America and find myself identified with your comment. It´s very difficult for me here to have access to the data bases with peer review articles and I would like to ask you if it´s possible for me to have access to that list of articles that you named before. I apologize if what I’m asking for is inappropriate since I understand that making such a list requires many hours of work.

      Thank you.

      Raúl.

      • Yolanda says:

        I did not see your request until today (1-2-15). I will endeavor to list the words during the upcoming week. So check back here.

    • Breon says:

      you are already my hero, too many teachers are for want of a better word pedestrian in their approach and attitude to teaching,they are happy to unquestionably see the Emerors new clothes, where individuals like yourself are seen as difficult because you research and find out the answers they themselves, if they are worth their pay check, should be doing also. I believe questioning and not dimly accepting is part of learning. Well done you are my hero

  2. Robert J. Sternberg says:

    I’m sure the author of this blog post meant well. But it would really help if blog posters (a) read the full literature or at least much of it and (b) made an effort to be objective in their blog posts. But the issue of learning styles is so ideologically fraught and driven by people who reach their conclusions without reading the full literature that one-sided accounts such as this one are likely to continue to be published into the distant future. A balanced assessment can be found in Maria Kozhevnikov, Carol Evans, and Stephen M. Kosslyn (2014). Cognitive Style as Environmentally Sensitive Individual Differences in Cognition: A Modern Synthesis and Applications in Education, Business, and Management Psychological Science in the Public Interest May 2014 15: 3-33, doi:10.1177/1529100614525555.

    • Jonathan Firth says:

      Very useful point, thanks for the link!

    • ryan chaney says:

      Robert Sternberg, in the second post of this comment section, you recommend an article behind a paywall to clarify the position attacked by this article. The abstract for the paper that you refer to specifically mentions that they do a biased review of “the literature” which is topical to the subject. They selected the papers that support their views of “cognitive style” It is self-expressed NOT balanced. It also purports to unify many different fields of psychological research based on a predisposition-model of brain development. At best, even if they’re totally right, they only cover 1/2 of the explanation of Nature or Nurture. I am ready to see the collapse of the psychobabble branch of modern science, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good data collection will distinguish science from politics.

    • Inservio Letum says:

      Thank you, Mr. Sternberg. I spent the vast majority of my youth misdiagnosed as dimwitted lazy or malignant, and was not identified as an MCDD patient until I was in my twenties. During my youth I had the opportunity to see virtually every educational system in the first world a my father was a diplomat and we moved roughly every three years. Every single teacher in every single school of every single system, tried to cram things down my throat with auditory and written repetition and no regard for how I process information.
      By chance one of my teachers in the British Embassy Preparatory School in Bonn, Germany, noticed how I interacted with a screen and keyboard, and that one year was a startling uptick in my educational performance. Only much later in my life did the notion of a visual learner become accepted, and since then I have been an effective learner. Even in normal everyday discourse, if someone names too many examples, I simply lose track of what we’re talking about, whereas in visual form I can absorb exponentially more information, and relate the information in three dimensions as if I were reaching for an item on a shelf from muscle memory.

  3. prochoice says:

    Plain and simple: we are not worth it.
    The poor, the overpopulated, unwanted children, thrown in a class of 44 children, as I was.
    Even if the teacher was not a nun, of course prejudiced against me, the “bastard”, 1 teacher could not help so many children individually.
    And as overcrowding has worsened, THANKS to the equally not proven cost-cutting beliefs, it is worse for those who are children now.
    For people who love numbers: averages are not good for the not-average living beings.

  4. Silverdart says:

    Back in my working days I used to do a lot of corporate training and went out of my way to incorporate auditory, visual and kinesthetic components to my programs in order to cover all three learning styles.

    What I found during the follow-ups (both immediate, 3 and 6 months later) was interesting and entirely unexpected.

    Compared to other trainers doing similar programs, my students retained almost exactly what students did from other trainers. However – and this was the interesting part – my students felt they had retained more than they actually did, compared to other students.

    Was this because I incorporated the 3 learning styles in my presentations?

    I don’t know. But it sure made for some interesting discussions with other trainers.

    • Tony Bryant says:

      I teach children and they all have their preferred learning styles.

      Now it may well be that they ‘can’ all learn using any method, fine. What would actually happen if I went back to chalk and blackboard is that many students would simply switch off, or worse, cause disruption.

      I used to smoke…I was always capable of quitting smoking but I didn’t until I had kids. My friend didn’t exercise until he had a heart attack.

      Many folks won’t engage in learning that isn’t delivered in their preferred style or…maybe they would drop out later.

    • imre says:

      It is typical that people can be given the impression/fooled into believing they hae learnt something when they have, in fact, not done so.

      “THE DOCTOR FOX LECTURE, A PARADIGM OF EDUCATIONAL SEDUCTION”
      by Naftulin, Ware and Donnelly

      demonstrated this very clearly.

      I believe the reason(s) for this have been (implicitly) well-known, if not articulated for many generations.

      The single most important part of teaching/learning is what the learner does. The more (s)he works with the content, the more (s)he learns. Many well-intended shibboleths of education are based on this sound principle.

      For example there is the view that by making learning “fun”, students will learn more.

      As appealing as this is, it is arrant nonsense. Learning should be ultimately rewarding, and, in my experience, the reward, the satisfaction, the sense of achievement only come (much!) later, especially when trying to learn something deep or difficult. Moreover, learning is hard work. Pretending that it does not have to be hard work undermines the students self-esteem when (s)he finds something difficult: “This is supposed to be fun and easy. Why am I finding it hard work?” One response is for the student to think (s)he is dumb. The other is to blame the teacher.

      Until the focus of teaching retursns to being the content to be taught, rather than on techniques of teaching and/or ise of educational technology, we will continue on the current downwatd path.

    • Cat says:

      How was this gained knowledge assessed?
      And did you repeat the assessment after a period of time? Was there any difference?

  5. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I think the jury may still be out on the issue of learning styles – but I have always been skeptical of the output of Educational Research.

    Feynman once called Educational Research “Cargo Cult Science.” Many of the experiments set up to test educational theories aren’t as rigorous as they should be. Many Ed theories are tested by the creators of said theories instead of impartial observers – or even detractors.

    A theory that passes the tests of a detractor merits more confidence than one that has passes tests of several supporters.

    Employing VAK techniques in lessons (particularly in teaching young students) may help with student engagement and maybe that’s sufficient. But I agree with those who want to “[E]ncourage students to work on developing their weaknesses as well.”

    • Andy says:

      Yep. I’m a teacher, fairly newly graduated. Education faculties and advisory bodies need to be cast out of the academy. Almost invariably proponents of bunkum.

  6. Ron LaDow says:

    Anecdotal:
    Show me the curves of three functions and I’ll see which variable needs changing to optimise the total result.
    Show me the three formulea and MEGO.
    I don’t think that’s universally true and I also think it represents a “learning style”

  7. Ron LaDow says:

    Let’s go a bit further with this:
    If ‘learning styles’ are irrelevant, doesn’t this mean a human teacher can be easily replaced with a robot? The only reason a teacher should be superior would be reading feedback from the student and adjusting the teaching method to the student’s ‘learning style’.
    And further, why would tutoring have any effect? If students all learn the same way, why would direct interaction have any effect?
    More yet: Class size becomes irrelevant. Pack ’em in, project it on the screen, they all get it or not!
    From the article:
    ” The learning styles approach also provides an excuse for poor performance to the detriment of students who will not recognize the need to make changes or seek help.”
    If the student has been offered the standard fare and has not ‘learned’, why, what sort of ‘help’ is available? A repetition of what has not yet worked?

    • Frank Johnson says:

      most certainly robots would be better teachers, and you wouldn’t need to pack the students in if the labor was free. Robots would have no biases, could not be charmed or play favorites, or play politics. We should be striving as a society to replace teachers with Computer assisted learning programs and change the role of teacher to “monitor.”

      • Droppo says:

        … and then lower the level of education by removing any actual discussion or other means of encouraging critical thinking skills – mainly what a good teacher is there for, not to just spew out information to students to absorb. Teachers who do that, are not good teachers and COULD be replaced by robots/computers. But is that what we want more of? The thing that can replace BAD teachers?

        • Adam M. says:

          I think you guys are debating a moot point. All societies on the planet have a horrible idea of what education means. Almost all “education” out there is about mindlessly memorizing irrelevant shit.

          What we need to do is to completely rethink what and how we want to teach. Like, history should NOT be a subject about wars and dates and memorizing irrelevant stuff. It should teach us who humans were, what are we capable of, it should show us our demons and angels, as Pinker or Lincoln put it, it should serve as a warning sign for the future and things like that.
          Or take biology for example. As a teacher I’m required to teach (the often outdated, or sometimes mythological) results of biology, and students are required to memorize that, and while facts are certainly important to science, they are not science. As Feynman put it, it’s cargo cult science. Biology classes (in my country, and I assume almost everywhere around the world) teach close to nothing about the science of biology. Kids can’t make use most of our biology classes in real life, they have no tools to distinguish homeopathy from medicine, they buy into every diet fad, don’t know how to optimize their exercises and so on.
          Or let’s talk about how critical thinking is missing from education, or how almost all teachers are bad teachers, and so on. We could discuss this for days, but the point is that we need a revolution in education.

          I think you also left out the most important role a teacher can be: an inspiration. Compared to the information available on the internet, e-books, and even to Wikipedia, teachers will be ALWAYS worse at dishing out facts and information. What we teachers need to do in the classroom is to get people interested, show them that biology (for example) is beautiful, the natural world is full of wonders, and that understanding more about the world is not only useful, but makes us grow as humans. The Brian Coxes, Carl Sagans, Richard Feynmans, Neil Tysons, Bill Nyes and their type of teachers are by far the most important players in education.

          • Ron LaDow says:

            Adam M: “I think you also left out the most important role a teacher can be: an inspiration.”

            I think this was addressed in that LA study regarding the effectiveness of teachers; some are obviously superior to others and I’m sure some students were “inspired”.
            But if all kids learned the same way, why weren’t they all “inspired”?

    • imre says:

      I believe the notion of “learning style” is pompous aggrandisation of the trite observation that different indivduals learn differently.

      The differences include rate at which new material is absorbed, rate at which new material is digested, depth of understanding sought, level of understanding/skill at which satisaction is felt, interest in the material, abilty to concentrate, …..

      There are various factors for tese differences, ranging from genetic – a mentally handicapped person is unlikely to master quantum mechanics, the plays of Shakespeare, or existentialism – through familial – the atmosphere in the parental home – to social – the attitde of the greater society or just the peer group to intellectual achievement.

      There are other factors, such as physical health, diet, fatigue, competing concerns, all of which exert influence in ways to complex to ever expect to be able to accurately discern or control any/all of them.

      In important part of learning – possibly the single most important one – is for the student to work out how to negotiate these and still learn. This is an individual matter, not a question of style.

      It is obvious to anyone who deals with people that a explanation which is transparent to one person can be opaque to another equally well educated one. Different events/thoughts prompt the same inisght for different people.

      I believe that the root of the problem is the encroachment of “managerialism” into edcation – the doctrine that learning is a commodity and the problem is to make it more attractive to its “consumers” which is best achieved by applying management principles and modern technology to its delivery.

  8. Randy Grein says:

    Brilliant article – not because it is correct in all areas, but that it challenges muddy thinking. There is considerable evidence that minds are not uniform units. It’s a bit of a jump from there to a firm theory of learning styles. Sounds like, once again educators have jumped on the nearest bandwagon before testing it for safety.

    I have no clear idea how to improve education, except that the current model of ‘assembly line learning’ is not very effective. Those like me get bored on the first repetition and either go off on their own to learn or raise hell. Those who don’t quite get the lesson as presented are labeled as ‘stupid’, ‘dull’ or ‘troublemakers’ and shunted off to the side, bereft of opportunity and real education. Worse, those (unlike me) who get, well, antsy sitting still get labels – ‘troublemaker’, ‘ADD’, ‘learning disabled’, and are also shunted aside. Is it any wonder that young men now make up less than 40% of college entrants when young boys are the ones most likely to be ‘antsy’ and have trouble sitting still during dull lessons?

    • Adam M. says:

      Yes indeed.

      As a teacher fresh out of university, getting the “most recent and modern” education I’m afraid that the science of teaching is not a science at all, and it is much more “muddy” than most would think. Its arguments stem from authority, tradition, aesthetics and ad populum, rather than evidence. I don’t even know if I was taught anything useful, because we were taught so much bullshit that reasonable students (very few of us) completely lost trust in our curriculum in the first few months.

      • Randy Grein says:

        Hmm, sounds like a field ripe for intelligent, insightful scientists to discover fundamental theories! Yes, you will have to fight the status quo (including getting a solid definition of what science is established within the field) but what an opportunity!

  9. Lindsay Walter says:

    I think I agree that a lot of the things that I have read about learning styles and MI may be a lot of hot air. However, I also think that providing some variety and choice in how learners are expected to tackle learning is motivational and therefore can lead to successful outcomes.

    • Adam M. says:

      You are right. And I don’t think anybody denies that. It is important that we try to hook different kids in different ways. But the “science” of learning styles says much more than that. Stuff like that reminds me of horoscopes for some reason.

  10. Rick Hendershot says:

    This article and comments seem to me to be less about “learning styles” and more about “teaching styles” – and certainly with a very limited view of where the important teaching actually goes on: apparently in formalized academic classroom situations. In other words, it is an example of navel gazing by professional classroom-based teachers. I suggest the vast majority of learning goes on outside formalized classrooms: learning to hit golf balls, play violins, pianos and guitars, put lumber together to make houses, etc.

  11. Not a Clone says:

    So there it is, we all learn the same. There’s one way, the right way and when someone figures out what that is we will all realize our potential. Of course, it makes perfect sense.

    • Adam M. says:

      I don’t know if you are satirizing the article or the “science” of learning styles. But let me note that the article doesn’t say what you say.

  12. Antonio says:

    Lest not forget, ‘learning styles’ was first posited by researchers. It wasn’t parents that came into the school with the idea/argument of ‘learning styles’ when discussing their child’s progress with teachers.

    Whether or not ‘learning styles’ are a “myth,” I could not say, but what I can state is that there IS existing research that support learning styles and existing research that don’t support it. The former includes the basics: auditory, visual, and tactile learning.

    But what does one mean by ‘learning styles’? This is where it starts to get dicey, since pedagogical terms evolve and tend to become a sort of a taxonomic complexity. This is the realm where some research become biased absurdities. Can you narrow down the mind of child on a fox plot diagram, an X/Y chart, or other fanciful statistics for the sake of hypothesizing how they learn? The short answer is that perhaps we can extract a core essence of agreeable results, but this should be analyzed carefully. We cannot make world conclusions based on such study with a sample size of 80 kids from one U.S. state. The long answer is most likely no. Why? Evolution. The principles of natural selection and genetics. What worked yesterday, may not work today, and what works today, may not work tomorrow.

    One only has to glance at our current near-ubiquitous electronic life. There is a digital medium at almost an arm’s reach that we can access for all types of electronic information: news, entertainment, learning, course lectures, music, podcasts, etc. It is argued by some that we are on “information overload.” Heck, there is a great Ted Talk by a research who argues for Cyborg Anthropology. It is important to note that such technology is accessible by developed countries. There are countless Earth citizens that do not have such privilege.

    This evolving technology is a factor in learning. Many students argue they learn more for digital education mediums (from some platforms, not all) than they do in the actual classroom. Let’s be honest, to say that every teacher is ‘effective’ would be complete utter nonsense. With the rise of digital technology, some teachers prohibit laptops in the classroom. Not only that, but they lecture in a dry manner; they don’t engage the student’s mind or imagination. Is it of any consequence that a student may become ‘bored’ or disinterested because of the teacher’s performance? I think that the majority of humans seek to be right all the time and teachers are no exceptions. I hear many teachers argue “well, I’m doing my job, it’s not my fault he/she didn’t learn.” Is this arrogant? It depends.

    Let me add something else without going indepth or distracting the topic. Because of these studies, research, etc., many schools are recommending mass drugs to students arguing that they are ADHD, or some other learning “disability.” Let that settle in. Don’t think this is a major problem? Perhaps you haven’t been in the educational industry. Google it or view some of the documentaries on this topic.

    While one can author a quick article on learning styles, it needs to encapsulate all variables. Compare a NYC urban high school results with that of a Winnetka, Illinois high school. All modern day children right? What is the success here? Is it ‘learning styles’ or access to better facilities/staff? Or is it the calmer upbringing? Too many variables.

    The author of this article stated, “The learning styles approach also provides an excuse for poor performance to the detriment of students who will not recognize the need to make changes or seek help.” This is slightly written in poor taste. You know, one only need to look at the many scientists in different branches of science: Einstein, Gregor Mendelian, Michael Faraday, da Vinci, etc – all of these in some form or another, where told they were no good. They didn’t excel at school and some dropped out. Some had poor upbringing. Their passions consumed their lives and eventually produced things that drove humanity forward. Should the author of this article have existed in that time period, or a modern day school institution, they would berate those late-blooming students and/or drug them. When you read their diaries or personal writings (it exists for many), you find the criticisms on teachers and institutions. Did they too use excuses for their poor performance like the author stated?

    This brings in another factor: human ecology. The author of this article and many of you probably have a favorite sports athlete,a favorite actor, a favorite cook at a restaurant, etc. While we love these people, they never contributed anything to education or science. Many of us don’t know the poor conditions they were raised in, their school failures (some didn’t have the privilege of attending a school), and their dark stories of swimming out of an environment they were born in to. Yet, we reap their creations to satisfy our viewing pleasures, listening pleasures, or testosterone needs. While it is optimal that we provide children with all the learning tools they need, each one will fill a unique niche in later life.

    Although the author argues that there is not enough research concerning learning styles before making the above arrogant claim, she neglects the research that does exist. Let’s use the following thought experiment. Suppose there are NO learning styles and its all a myth, would you argue there are ‘teaching styles’? Do you think ALL the teachers in your life were the exact same awesome teacher created at a factory line? Did you find that some were ‘better’ than others in terms of making you understand and in their teaching methods? Were the teaching styles of teachers animated? Boring? Horrible? Did they speak in a monotonous voice and say “class, read pages 39 to 51 and do the problem set on page 52 that is due Wednesday” followed by teacher sitting down and reading the newspaper? Or did you have a teacher who used humor, animated body language, visuals, and spoke cheerfully as they drew on the board solutions to what they were talking about? Did you have a teacher who impacted you so much, that they still simmer in your thoughts decades later and/or are responsible for help sculpting your life in some way? I think you will side and agree that not all teachers are the same; some have effective teaching styles, some simply don’t.

    I gently ‘believe’ that ‘learning styles’ can be a cliche. It is an established term that evolved and is used by some to make sense out of ineffective learning. I think that when some use ‘learning styles’ in an argument, what they really mean is hey, my child needs to be engaged, receive hands on projects, given lots of visuals, and should receive more effective teaching. I also believe that some parents don’t know how to encourage/fuel their own child and simply delegate that responsibility to public schools. This can be disastrous.

    “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” –Xun Kuang. Confucian philosopher 312-230 B.C.E.

    • Adam M. says:

      I’d like to point out that you are basically saying that breast cancer is not a problem we should fight against, because some people have survived it.

      We have long established that most people most of the time don’t react well to people viewing them as retards. Sure, there are many people who succeeded despite of that, or in fact because of that, but don’t try to make the exception the norm. Teachers must NOT label their students idiots.

      The author acknowledges the body of research concerning learning styles. She says that the research is crap and biased – and while I personally did not research learning styles extensively, I know it very well, that the “science” of education is super-biased, and is rarely ever evidence based.

      You are also arguing against a (n intentionally?) misunderstood perception of what the author said. She did not state that teachers should be boring. Or that they should all teach in the same style. These are faulty deduction you made, and quite frankly, they are a bit vile. Do not mistake the criticism of “learning styles” (complex ideas about learning and horoscope-like categorization of people) with the cry for some Orwelian education system, or whatever you see into this article.
      To understand what we are talking about when we say “learning styles” I suggest you glance through this wikipedia article:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_styles#David_Kolb.27s_model

  13. Susan says:

    I have been teaching high school science for more than 10 years. I have seen and worked under many “learning style” curricula. I have had to give those learning style inventories. I have heard students explain away their low performances by expounding on how the unit/teacher/class didn’t reach them because they are X learning style. I have seen more learned helplessness with learning styles than good learning.

  14. Christopher Denney says:

    I am not a teacher, but I worked with kids who were well behind their peers in one subject or another in a Navy program called project whitehat. Short form of the story is that all of the kids I worked with did not have any kind of problem with the learning styles or teaching methods, they were each missing one very basic piece of understanding that left them in the dark about everything else going on in the class. Kids in third and fourth grade doing math at the second grade level, basically. In the case of one little boy just taking the time to show him why 3×4=12, that multiplication is just adding over and over again, was enough for him to understand everything that was so dark and confusing before, that is the first time I ever saw a smile lite up a face quite like that.
    The point being that if a student is missing a piece of vital understanding no teaching style/learning style can possibly address their education. I guess the argument is that “the right teaching style will ensure everyone understands” but that will never be true. All it takes is a student missing a day or a minute of a class, and that one vital understanding to slip by them and everything that follows is gibberish. If the staff can find and identify (and get the student to admit) the lack and address it, then one-size-fits-all teaching can get the bulk of the students with a mixture of presentations. And the outliers can be brought up to speed when they miss something… of course who has the budget for that. :(

  15. Brett says:

    While I enjoyed the concept of the article, I am not convinced by either her conclusion or recommendations. The questions raised are certainly topical, and worth further exploration. Such is the nature of research. In my years as a corporate trainer, preferences do occasionally make minor differences. Yet most adult learners bring sufficient experience, job context and flexibility to learn what they need to. Adult learners have a different context compared to kids. My experience is that the failure of adult learning isn’t failure Isn’t failure is the learning experience, but rather lack of support structure that permits workplace transfer.

  16. Max says:

    Where did all the comments by teachers come from in the last two days?

  17. Leon Whitesell says:

    What causes the donkey to keep moving forward…the carrot dangling in front of the donkey. What causes a student to learn…motivation, driven by desire. What encourages learning…determination, on the part of the learner, and support and encouragement from those who show respect and fondness for genuine achievement…and, at the risk of being called an old curmudgeon, fear of not achieving, and friendly, or not so friendly competition… All things come to us when we are READY, through motivation, driven by desire!

  18. Kelsey says:

    The flurry of comments comes from social media. Teachers are friends with other teachers. When quality educators find a thought-provoking article about pedagogy, they post/share it online.

    • Max says:

      Thanks, that’s what I thought. I’m out of the loop on social media. So these commenters know each other?

  19. A.L. Zinn says:

    Educational fads are like nutrition and diet fads. Remember New Math? How about “open” classrooms? Education typically becomes the focus of “cures” for social problems the victim is expected to fix. Half baked schemes emerge like mushrooms.
    Mandated teaching methods, good or bad, often don’t work in school systems because they lack uniform follow-through. Common sense teaching methods used since forever still work best without mandates. There are sick schools where nothing works.

    Dyslexia, attention deficits and just poor eyesight may go unrecognized even by the family. Students have to learn their own learning “tricks”. Some do it just to get through the system but they learn anyway.

    A good teacher teaches HOW to learn.

  20. Chris says:

    Love the article. Great challenge to convention. Was this published by anyone other than skeptic? I want to share, but I want people to know that this material isn’t solely for skeptics or contrarians.

  21. Jonathon Johns says:

    I think you’re very dangerous. As an educator and researcher who works with learning disabled children, it is very obvious that children have different styles.

    Some are VERY compromised when it comes to auditory learning. Others absolutely need to pair visual and auditory. Some require physical activity. As we map brains and see where people have slow regions of their brains – it’s clear there is now supporting evidence for these barriers to learning.

    Just because “there is lack of evidence, does not mean there is evidence of lack.” And btw, it’s only the lack of evidence that you are choosing to consider to be good evidence. And it makes me wonder who you are fronting for – is this the beginning of the movement for one-size-fits-all education? The corporatization of absolutely everything?

    -JJ

    • Kerry O'Brien says:

      Hi Jonathan, you may be correct with special needs education (disabled learners), which will of course require different approaches based on different disabilities, however, that doesn’t invalidate the point made here in relation to the general population. Lack of good evidence means lack of quality evidence, or volume of quality evidence, as defined within science e.g., level of evidence. That is easily verifiable for a good researcher.

  22. eastnorfirestarter says:

    We learn best in a similar comforting floatation, supportive medium, feeling the vibrations of our mothers womb walls. Fast growth inhibits a fixed classroom medium that is always bursting at the seams. Such natural pandemonium events are part of the individual’s best learning environ and strategy. The author must then be on to the correct notion. A student in a fixated learning style is a student likely heading toward a dysfunctional learning state.

Get eSkeptic

Science in your inbox every Wednesday!

eSkeptic delivers great articles, videos, podcasts, reviews, event announcements, and more to your inbox once a week.

Sign me up!

Donate to Skeptic

Please support the work of the Skeptics Society. Make the world a more rational place and help us defend the role of science in society.

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall, M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods. The lectures each range from 32 to 45 minutes.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience? If so, you know how compelling they can be. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

Copyright © 1992–2017. All rights reserved. The Skeptics Society | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. Privacy Policy.