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The Myth of Learning Styles

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.

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