“Learning Styles” Likely Are Just A Myth
The idea that individuals have different "learning styles" is apparently not borne out by the evidence, according to recent research.
One of the major educational fads of the last 20 years, the idea that individuals have different “learning styles,” is apparently not borne out by the evidence, according to Olga Khazan writing in The Atlantic:
“By the time we get students at college,” said Indiana University professor Polly Husmann, “they’ve already been told ‘You’re a visual learner.'” Or aural, or what have you.
The thing is, they’re not. Or at least, a lot of evidence suggests that people aren’t really one certain kind of learner or another. In a study published last month in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better on their tests.
Husmann thinks the students had fallen into certain study habits, which, once formed, were too hard to break. Students seemed to be interested in their learning styles, but not enough to actually change their studying behavior based on them. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered.
According to Khazan, Husmann’s findings are not just a one-off fluke result; in fact, almost all of the research that has attempted to find evidence that “learning styles” exist has failed to find much evidence to support this belief.
The “learning styles” idea has snowballed—as late as 2014, more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it. The concept is intuitively appealing, promising to reveal secret brain processes with just a few questions. Strangely, most research on learning styles starts out with a positive portrayal of the theory—before showing it doesn’t work.
She suggests that there is not much harm from both teachers and students believing this myth, but I’m not so sure about that; if we’re asking professors and teachers to present material in a suboptimal way to accommodate “learning styles,” ironically we may be hurting the ability of students to understand what we are teaching when we’re attempting in good faith to help. As Khazan points out, “most of the tasks we encounter are only really suited to one type of learning. You can’t visualize a perfect French accent, for example.”
Another potential harm is that if students buy into “learning styles,” it may harm their ability to learn in contexts where their preferred learning style is not the mode of presentation. Faculty often observe students making statements like “I became a political science major so I wouldn’t have to do math” or “I’m bad at history, so I don’t think I’ll do well in American government” [sic]; it is not unreasonable to believe students might buy into the same self-defeating thinking when it comes to learning styles as well.
The final harm may be to faculty and teachers themselves. Khazan suggests that the root of the “learning styles” myth may have been “the self-esteem movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s,” a phenomenon that certainly seems to have contributed to other issues with recent generations of students such as helicopter parenting and student self-regard as “special snowflakes.” While these phenomena are often exaggerated, and many of them are only problematic among students at elite universities or members of radicalized protest movements, a lesser version of this harm could be playing out in the context of faculty evaluation, both in K-12 and higher education, albeit in different ways.
At the college level, students are the main source of evaluations, both on the once-popular “Rate My Professors” website and its clones and in institutional student evaluations of teaching (SETs); the latter remain the most common way of evaluating faculty teaching performance, despite strong evidence that student evaluations are really only measures of student satisfaction rather than teaching effectiveness, and reflect student biases related to faculty gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, and other categories that would make their use problematic (at best) in almost any setting where the employer is required to follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many state and local employment discrimination laws.
If students are basing evaluations on whether or not their (bogus) learning style preferences are being accommodated, as may very well be the case, and learning styles are unrelated to student learning outcomes, that would provide yet more evidence that SETs are ill-suited for faculty evaluation. In a similar vein, K-12 teachers are often evaluated by peers and superiors on whether or not they are engaging all the different “learning styles” in a short class, which potentially reduces the evaluation of teaching quality to a box-checking exercise of how much time was devoted to “aural learners” versus “visual learners” and the like.
So, while in isolation there might not be any harm from the mistaken belief that “learning styles” matter, the interaction of this belief with pedagogy and evaluation suggests the harm may be substantially larger than we might otherwise think.