Sunday, December 06, 2015

Learning Styles are dead! Long live Learning Styles!

"The biggest problem with educational myths is that people who believe in them will often be able to find enough evidence in their day-to-day practice to support their beliefs. The reason for this is simple. It is like when you buy a new car: suddenly you see the same make of car everywhere you go, often in the same model and color. But these cars were on the road before you bought yours; it is just that you did not notice them until now. In the same way, we are quick to recognize 'indications' for the ideas we believe in. The experiences that don't support our case we simply ignore, unconsciously or not."
(De Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof (2015) Urban Myths about Learning and Education)

I am enjoying reading this book on Urban myths in education, and see that Learning Styles is one of the first urban myth tackled in the book. As Russell Mayne pointed out in this ELTJam article, there is something about Learning Styles which means it just refuses to die, despite insurmountable evidence that this emperor has no clothes. The section ends with the following conclusion:

"Though appealing, no solid evidence exists showing that there is any benefit in adapting and designing education and instruction to these so-called styles. It may even  be the case that in doing so, administrators, teachers, parents and even learners are negatively influencing the learning process and the products of education and instruction."

Before reaching this conclusion, the authors run through the evidence for and against. Most learning styles classify people into groups, but most people do not fit into one particular style and the information used to assign people to styles is inadequate.

Learning styles are one thing, but what about learner preference? This is often confused with learning styles (see image above), which is part of the problem. I prefer to take notes when I'm listening to a lecture or a conference talk, because I think it helps me underline the main messages and I remember what was said better. Taking notes also helps me concentrate. Does that mean you can categorise me as an auditory/kinaesthetic/visual/other learner? I don't think so. Or if you think you so, I don't see how the label would be useful.  Either way this habit I've developed since I was younger may not be the best way for me to learn. As early as 1982, Clark "found in a meta-analysis of studies...that learner preference was typically uncorrelated or negatively correlated with learning and learning outcomes."

What is supporting the persistence of this myth? Well, Pashler and co. believe it is supported by "a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks" and "professional development workshops for teachers and educators" (p.105) despite their being "no scientific evidence for the different learning style categorizations and no proof for their added value in the classroom" (De Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof, 2015). That does not mean that all learners are the same, however, and "a good teacher, like a good chef, knows how to optimize this by playing to the learner's strong points and compensating for the weak ones."


  1. You may not see how the label can be useful, but I have seen it being very useful for getting students to recognize different ways of processing and organizing information in their minds. I also work with students with specific language learnign disorders for whom identifying strengths and weaknesses is "make or break" and would argue that including this exploration is a good practice of Universal Design.
    Granted, a lot of BS has been spewed in the name of "learning styles," and "learning preferences" would be a better term. It's interesting that you want research backing to defend exploring learning styles/preferences (because very specific research indicates that changing content delivery based on learning style doesn't improve things; note that the research doesn't say *anything* about working with students to understand and work with their preferences/styles). However, you dismiss the learning preferences because you, personally, don't see any use to the label.
    Since it's become a "bandwagon" term and the current fad is to deem learning styles an old fad, I just leave the term behind and talk to students about different ways to study and improve comprehension. I give them no sympathy if they go down the "I'm not doing well because that teacher doesn't understand my learning style," but I'll work with them *use* their "learning style" to own their learning, whatever they call it.

    1. Thanks for commenting, SiouxGeonz. I respect your opinion and agree that the term is starting to become confused and often meaningless, which is why I think we need to leave it behind and do what you are doing, i.e. talk about different strategies and ways students can approach learning - it sounds like a far better approach than trying to categorise and label learners.

  2. Also published today>