The Word “Style” Applies to Fashion, Not to Learning
Debunking the myth of learning styles.
Posted October 19, 2020
When we hear the term style, we typically think of fashion. Seems pretty harmless, right? Unfortunately, the term style frequently gets applied to learning, and when applied in this way, it’s actually not so harmless.
The learning styles movement stems from the theory that students have preexisting preferences for how they learn things and that the most successful teachers understand these preferences and adjust their instruction accordingly to reach every student (Fleming, N. & Baume, D. 2006). Learning styles are described as visual, auditory, reading, writing, or kinesthetic (i.e., needing tangibles to learn abstract concepts). Learning styles are either identified via a questionnaire administered with students or based on teachers’ observations of students in their classrooms, with instruction adjusted in various ways to match those reported or perceived preferences.
The big problem with the entire learning styles movement, which dominates education, is that it’s based on theory rather than science (Khazan, O. 2018). Moreover, many empirical studies have actually debunked this theory (Husmann, P.R. 2018; Knoll, A.R., et al. 2016; Rogowsky, B. et al. 2014). In other words, research conducted to evaluate the impact of learning styles on student performance has indicated that instruction or study habits based on self-reported or teacher-perceived learning styles do not actually improve student performance.
In short: Learning styles are a myth. Yet, 90 percent of teachers continue to believe in them (Howard-Jones, P. 2014). So, what’s the big deal? What’s the harm in teachers adjusting instruction to their students’ “learning styles”?
Although seemingly harmless, belief in learning styles can lead to a host of problems. First of all, learning styles aren’t “styles” at all. Learning styles actually relate to how a student responds to information. For example, some students respond better to visual information whereas others respond better to auditory information. However, the fact that they respond differently doesn’t imply that this is how they learn. On the contrary, the manner in which students respond to information is actually the result of learning, not the cause of it (Berens, K 2020, p. 111-113).
Learning styles are actually skills, skills that must be learned through effective instruction and repeated, reinforced practice (Berens, K. 2020, p.111 -113). If you have a student who struggles to respond to auditory information, then they need training in listening skills. If a student struggles to respond to visual information, then they need training in looking skills. Just because students have eyes and ears, doesn’t mean that they will effectively look or listen. Looking and listening are skills that must be strengthened through training.
Learning styles are also believed to be inherent characteristics of students – like personality. It is widely believed that learning styles are fixed traits that can’t be changed or improved. As a result, many students never receive the kind of training required to strengthen their weaknesses, which leads to lifelong limitations. But all students need to effectively respond to academic material in a variety of ways. All students need to learn from a lecture, from reading, from evaluating graphs and figures, and without the need for tangible stimuli. Categorizing students into various “learning styles” ensures that their skills deficits are never effectively addressed, which can lead to long-term academic failure.
Learning styles tend to become synonymous with teaching to a student’s strengths (Berens 2020, p. 113-115). However, we should actually be teaching to a student’s weaknesses. It is the responsibility of educators to ensure that students learn and master what they don’t already know. The notion of learning styles has become a slippery slope masked as an approach tailored to each student as an individual. However, by viewing learning styles as fixed characteristics of students rather than as skills that can be improved through training, we sentence students to a lifetime of skills deficits. Individualizing instruction to each student’s unique needs is an absolute must in education. However, individualizing instruction shouldn’t entail avoiding a student’s weaknesses. It should entail designing effective instruction and repeated, reinforced practice opportunities to strengthen those weaknesses.
The next time you hear the term “style” being used to describe learning rather than a person’s shoes or handbag, speak up. Learning styles are a dangerous myth. It’s time to set the record straight. We have a responsibility as citizens to debunk myths that are detrimental to our society. The idea of learning styles is one of these myths. More than 60 percent of American students graduate below proficiency in all academic subjects.
This tragic statistic should make it pretty clear that myths have no place in our nation’s schools. Education should be guided by science. Let’s leave the myths to the storytellers.
Berens, K.N. (2020). Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science that can Save Them. The Collective Book Studio: Oakland, CA.
Fleming, N. & Baume, D. (2006). Learning Styles Again: VARKing up the right tree!, Educational Developments, SEDA Ltd, Nov. 2006, p 4 – 7.
Howard-Jones, P.A. (2014). Neuroscience and Education: Myths and Messages. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 15, 817 – 824.
Husmann, P.R. & O’Loughlin, V.D. (2018). Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students’ Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported VARK Learning Styles. Anatomical Sciences Education, 12, 6 – 19.
Khazan, O. (2018). The myth of ‘Learning Styles’: A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked. The Atlantic.
Knoll, A.R., Otani, H., Skeel, R.L. & Van Horn, K.R. (2016). Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. British Journal of Psychology, Aug 108 (3), 544 – 563.
Rogowsky, B.A., Tallal, P. & Calhoun, B.M. (2015). Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64 – 78.