The Pitfalls of Pigeonholing Students by "Learning Styles"
A new systematic review sheds light on a widely-believed educational myth.
Posted Jan 12, 2021
In recent years, numerous studies have found no concrete evidence to support the notion that matching classroom teaching methods to a student's so-called "learning style" significantly improves educational outcomes. Yet, this neuromyth persists. In fact, a recent systematic review found that only about 10 percent of educators are skeptical of the highly questionable Learning Styles (LS) methodology.
This systematic review (Newton & Salvi, 2020) found that almost 90 percent of surveyed educators "believed that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style." These findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Education.
For this systematic review of Learning Styles theory, Philip Newton and Atharva Salvi of Wales' Swansea University analyzed 37 studies (published between 2009 and early 2020) involving 15,405 educators from 18 countries. According to Newton and Salvi, over 70 different Learning Style classification systems are used to categorize students worldwide.
Some common learning style classifications include "Aural" (auditory) learners, "Verbal" (linguistic) learners, "Logical" (mathematical) learners, "Physical" (kinesthetic) learners, "Social" (interpersonal) learners, "Solitary" (intrapersonal) learners; or terms like "Accommodator," "Assimilator," "Converger," and "Diverger" from the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (KLSI).
Among surveyed educators from around the globe, Newton and Salvi's systematic review found that "self-reported belief in matching instruction to LS was high, with a weighted percentage of 89.1 percent, ranging from 58 to 97.6 percent." Notably, their review also found "no evidence that this belief has declined in recent years." For example, from a sample of pre-service teaching trainees, 95.4 percent agreed with a prompt stating that "matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective."
"This apparent widespread belief in an ineffective teaching method that is also potentially harmful has caused concern among the education community," Newton said in a Jan. 6 news release. He points out that being pigeonholed by a specific learning style can backfire and may cause some students to lose motivation. As the authors explain:
"For example, a student who is categorized as an 'auditory learner' may conclude that there is no point in pursuing studies, or a career, in visual subjects such as art, or written subjects such as journalism and so be demotivated during those classes. They might also conclude that they will be more successful in auditory subjects such as music, and thus inappropriately motivated by unrealistic expectations of success and become demotivated if that success does not materialize."
"If students do not achieve the academic grades they expect, or do not enjoy their learning; if students are not taught in a way that matches their supposed learning style, then they may attribute these negative experiences to a lack of matching and be further demotivated for future study," Newton added. "Spending time trying to match a student to a learning style could be a waste of valuable time and resources."
There are two main takeaways from this systematic review: First, despite efforts to debunk the LS neuromyth, almost 90 percent of educators "from samples all over the world in all types of education" still believe in the unsubstantiated benefits of trying to match classroom instruction with a student's learning style. Second, since the mid-2000s, educators' belief in matching instruction to learning styles has not decreased over time.
As the authors sum up: "We find that 89.1 percent of 15,045 educators, surveyed from 2009 through to early 2020, self-reported a belief that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style."
Newton and Salvi conclude their December 2020 review with three questions that will be addressed in future work: "How many of us actually match instruction to the individual Learning Styles of students, and what are the consequences when we do? Does it matter? Should we instead focus on promoting effective approaches rather than debunking myths?"
Philip M. Newton and Atharva Salvi. "How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review." Frontiers in Education (First published: December 14, 2020) DOI: 10.3389/feduc.2020.602451