“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.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I learn much more easily be hearing or doing than by reading. My wife learns from the printed page. My eldest learns best from things expressed as numbers. My youngest learns best by doing. And more to the point, each of us learns different things in different ways, so sometimes I want text, and sometimes my youngest learns by hearing, and so on.

    I don’t think the initial theory was very well expressed, but I also don’t think people learn equally well in all forms. The methodology of this study looks beyond suspect. You ask kids to take a test which allegedly evaluates their learning style, then tells them how to proceed to implement that insight, and shock, horror, there’s a disconnect? Really? Have the researchers met kids?

    All of this is mostly by the by because the problem isn’t methods of learning it’s what’s being taught. School is BORING. It was boring to me, to my wife, to my kids, it’s boring because the curricula are political products ill-suited to teaching actual humans in the year 2018, and because we don’t pay teachers enough to get the best, and because even when we have good teachers we hamstring them.

    We’ve studied and tested and theorized and privatized and chartered and none of it seems to have moved the ball, because what is needed is less system and more flexibility and individuality. Kids can customize and individualize every part of their lives now, but schools still insist on sitting you in location A for duration B at a frequency of C to study some tedious sh!t you don’t like and will never use, all leading to a test so that we can keep scores and more importantly real estate values inflated.




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  2. Kathy says:

    Some things you learn by doing, because reading about them or even watching video of people doing them are not enough. Like cooking, for example.

    Some things you can’t learn by doing because you can’t do them. Like history.

    Some things are learned both by doing and reading and listening, like chemistry or biology.

    For the past few years, I’ve used my time when working out, cooking and driving, listening to history podcasts, as well as audio books and Great Courses lecture series. I listen mostly to history, as well as science (I don’t know how to classify Freakonomics, or Gladwell’s podcast).

    No question I’ve learned a great deal, not to mention I’ve put time to better use. but when I read history books, I learn just as well.

    Maybe it’s just me, maybe reading and listening are roughly the same.




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  3. Grewgills says:

    The study doesn’t seem well structured to actually discovering if learning styles exist. Part of that problem is in quantifying across individuals and subjects the best way of learning for each individual. Everyone knows, albeit subjectively, that they learn some things more easily than others and that some methods of learning have worked better for them, at least for specific things they have learned. So, at some level learning styles do exist. What is misunderstood by many is what they actually mean and how important they are.
    I’ve taught at various levels over the years from middle school through college. I’ve probably seen over a thousand students in my classes of almost all ability levels. Where I see the most benefit of the idea of learning styles in class is that if forces teachers to present material in different ways. This has made me think about material in ways I otherwise would not have and has helped me present that material more effectively to more students. It has also helped to increase engagement by the students and that more than anything else makes teaching more effective. If someone is not engaged any time spent has only marginal value. If someone is actively engaged real learning can happen and it helps to motivate the students to put in the time necessary for that learning to be consolidated.




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  4. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    Where I fell of the wagon on learning styles (and the theory of multiple intelligences) was related to product. While I was in graduate school and getting a teaching certificate I asked a question one day to the effect of how does it matter if a student’s preferred intelligence is kinesthetic or visual/spatial if the preferred output for demonstrating mastery of the content is an essay or oral presentation? The problem, for me at least, is that not all the modes have equal societal value, so ultimately, students need to either adapt or manage to flourish in a niche environment–assuming they can find one.

    I will agree with the authors of the study in that I do think that I have seen slight preferences for various modes of presentation among various individual students. I will agree with Dr. Lawrence that such preferences are more of a curiosity than valuable tool for shaping either instruction or evaluation of teachers. (On the other hand, while in Korea, our Academic Director did a presentation about the biases in student evaluation instruments and how they were unfair only to have the Administration of the University note that they realized these facts about the system and didn’t actually care because student evaluations were popular.) Ultimately, good teachers look for ways to enable students to connect to the materials and the systems of evaluation and Grewgills is correct in noting that as more approaches are available, more students will succeed. I always have felt that one of the biggest problems we have as teachers and in education is that we believe “what is the best way to teach?” has a definable answer.




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  5. John Smith says:

    I’m surprised so many teachers still buy into “learning styles.” When my education colleagues and I were in college (late 2000s), most of us thought it was a naive oversimplification. No one learns a particular way all the time, though people often approach learning similar subjects/tasks in similar ways.

    That being said, if you are interested in how this has developed, you might look into “differentiated instruction,” which is a kind of evolution of “learning styles” (also incorporating them). DI was the buzzword for my cohort and was on the evaluations we saw. I no longer teach, but I always thought its grounding in learning styles was problematic. It’s nice to have a variety of things in your toolbox to use when a certain situation arises or simply to vary your instruction, but it can take an inordinate amount of classroom time and planning to faithfully implement learning styles within a large, diverse classroom, depending on subject/topic. Without providing clear benefits, I view it as vulnerable to wasting time and resources, particularly when its importance is often to check off boxes on an eval form.

    Or maybe I’m just a disgruntled former music educator that didn’t like having to give writing assignments in my band class and was jaded with every “next best thing” or legislated change we had to make. *shrug*

    Also, do students actually talk about whether an instructor accommodated their “learning styles?” I don’t know what the yutes are up to anymore, but it sounds foreign to me.




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  6. Franklin says:

    @John Smith:

    Or maybe I’m just a disgruntled former music educator that didn’t like having to give writing assignments in my band class and was jaded with every “next best thing” or legislated change we had to make. *shrug*

    That would be my generic complaint against most schools, particularly public schools: the problem is the politicians or ‘business leaders’ or administrators, all of whom think they know how to make the teachers teach better. The teachers, you know, the ones who are with the kids 6+ hours a day – the ones with both training and experience.

    The administrators’ job is to hire good teachers, and then everybody stand the f*** back.




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  7. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @John Smith: I can only speak for my little corner of the nation, but the reason that “so many teachers still buy into ‘learning styles’” is probably because the districts in which I work as a substitute ask the teachers to document how they tailor their lessons and instructional activities to the learning styles of the various students. I’m sorry that you decided to leave it all behind, but hope that you have found outlets that allow you to scratch your musical inclinations more effectively. Personally, I tired of being a “band coach” relatively early in my career and would have loved to have had some administrative support for having the students do some activities such as writing program notes about the music and composers who wrote it, but I couldn’t get any. It certainly would have filled a homework component that wasn’t being filled by home instrumental practice–based on the number of instruments I used to see still in the instrument room every afternoon as I locked up.
    @Franklin: If only “hiring good teachers” were as easy as “hiring good factory workers/civil servants/managers/waitpeople/dishwashers/sales associates…




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  8. John Smith says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    This is true. There is value in that and I did use that sort of thing in teaching kids how to critique performances, in particular. I actually like the idea of visual-art assignments to help kids develop their ways of interpreting elements of musical expression, as well. I overreacted in my last post. I’m too young to be a curmudgeon!

    I didn’t like having to give essay assignments to middle schoolers, particularly when grading them in a faithful way (coordinating with the english teachers’ lessons and rubrics, which we were required to do), because, at my school, it introduced poor grades that discouraged kids. I minimized those in my grading structure, but they saw a bad grade as a bad grade, regardless of how much it affected their overall mark. I was also forced to use a lesson plan template that was tailored specifically for reading, all the teachers were, which made for some strange planning.

    I was in a pretty special situation, though. Also, my principal was a royal jackass and thug of a boss, but I know we’ve all been there.

    I do freelance work in music publishing, though I’m researching a shift towards IT. I still work friends’ bands and work with students when I can! I appreciate your concern.




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  9. Tyrell says:

    Education fads: “Whole language”: the spelling and grammar books are shelved.
    “Self esteem”: everyone gets an award.
    “4 step lesson plan”: meaningless.
    “Assessments”: this means to teach what you test.
    “Common Core”: driving parents crazy, there is no right or wrong answer, let the students figure it out on their own.
    “Competency based learning”: more assessments, now done on computers.
    One thing common with all the fads: they were created and designed by corporations and universities, not school teachers. Think: money. Just look at the money spent on testing: booklets, practice books, scoring machines, test pencils.
    “Testing isn’t everything. Testing is the only thing” prevailing philosophy of the education establishment.




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