What Are Learning Styles?
Should educators be using them?
Posted Apr 20, 2015
You have probably heard of them - you fill in a questionnaire to be told that you a 'visual learner' or an 'auditory learner,' a 'reflector' or a 'pragmatist,' a 'diverger' or a 'converger'? But exactly what are learning styles? They are, unfortunately, one of the great myths in learning theory.
Three principles underly the concept of a learning style.
1. Individuals will state that they prefer to learn in a particular style. They may prefer information to be presented visually, or verbally etc. This is their opinion, based on their experience.
2. Individuals show differences in how well they can distinguish between different forms of information. For example, some people might be better at learning to distinguish between pieces of visual information, whereas others may be better at learning to distinguish between sounds. There is some evidence that this is true, and that it may even be reflected in patterns of activity within the brain.
The third element is the most important.
3. Teaching individuals in their preferred/prescribed 'learning style' will result in improved learning. There is no good evidence that this is true.
There are, according to a thorough review conducted by Frank Coffield and colleagues (link), at least 71 different learning style schemes, each containing multiple learning style types. They classify learners into styles using a whole variety of different methods, but, according to an extensive analysis conducted by Pashler and colleagues in 2008 (link), there are no good data supporting the use of any of the learning styles in education. Teaching 'visual' learners using visual methods doesn't make any difference to how well they learn.
There is a fairly simple explanation for why this might be. The 'VARK' Learning Styles inventory is one of the most popular and classifies people into Visual (V), Aural (A), Reading/writing (R) and Kinaesthetic (K) (or a combination of those). Think of learning about, well, anything - playing the guitar for example. You can't do that without picking it up and playing it (K), listening to your efforts as you do (A), reading instructions about what to do (R) and looking at images of finger positions for chords and notes for the music (V)—the meaning of what is being learned is so much more complex than one or two of these four modalities. Applying VARK to learn something simpler is not without problems—how do you make use of the fact that someone is supposedly an 'Aural' learner if they are learning to identify roadsigns to pass their driving test. That is visual information and surely has to be learned visually as it will have to be recognised visually. When we start to unpick it, the very idea of learning styless lacks basic validity.
Both the Coffield and Pashler papers are unequivocal about this, and are clear that learning styles should not be used. It is fairly straightforward to test for the effectiveness of learning styles—one simple way would be to take two groups of people with different learning styles (say, one group of 'visual learners' and one group of 'kinaesthetic learners') and you teach all of them using the preferred learning style of just one of the groups. Then you test them to see how well they did (e.g. if both the aforementioned groups were taught using visual methods, then the visual learners should do better on the test than the kinaesthetic learners). Unfortunately most of those studies which support the use of Learning Styles lack this basic rigour, and evidence of this type is lacking.
So, learning styles have been tested many times, and no rigorous evidence has yet been found to support their use, and we can deconstruct them to show that they are not really a valid way of classifying learners.
But ... they are everywhere. The Times Higher Education Supplement publishes annual ranking of the worlds Universities. A cursory Google search reveals content advocating learning styles on the websites of many of the highest ranked universities, including #1 ranked Caltech, plus, amongst others, UC Berkeley, Yale, UCLA and Harvard. (To be fair, you can find plenty of content to the contrary, including Harvard Professor Howard Gardener asserting that his theory of 'Multiple Intelligences' is not the same as 'learning styles,' although it is often quoted as such).
Given the exalted company, it is unsurprising to discover that you can take a self-test on Psychology Today to determine your learning style and there are plenty of posts advocating Learning Styles, although fellow PT blogger Tracy Alloway published a study showing that working memory capacity trumps everything.
This then raises two further questions: Why are learning styles so popular, and does it matter that they are? The Coffield and Pashler papers both address this to some extent, and their views have been summarised in many places, including in this well balanced summary from Vanderbilt (link).
Summarising the summaries—yes, it matters that learning styles are so popular, and for a number of reasons. To me, the most important is that there are a lot of things that do work in education. Proper training of teachers, including review by their peers, is one. Another is practice tests for students. John Hattie has done an enormous amount of work to identify 'what works' in education, and his findings are summarised here (this work is not without its own controversy, but that is for another day). The use of Learning Styles diverts time and other resources from strategies that have been shown to work.
There are other concerns—'pigeonholing' learners into one style may label, or burden them. It may deter them from learning about things which do not appear to fit their Learning Style, and mistakenly create the impression that it is going to be harder for them when they have to. The persistence of Learning Styles also undermines confidence in education research, which, as I have written previously, already has something of an image problem (link).
Why are learning styles so popular, despite many people repeatedly pointing out these problems? (see the links below). Perhaps the most compelling reason is that, fundamentally, people are different. We do clearly state preferences for the way in which we are taught, and have hundreds of other individual preferences and views besides. Thus, the very idea of learning styles is attractive at a very basic level. It makes intuitive sense that there are ways to customise teaching to make the most of our individual differences and preferences, and that this would make our education more effective. However, we just don't seem to have figured out how to do this well ... yet?
You might also like these videos on learning styles and the problems with their use, one from Dan Willingham (link) and a TEDx talk from Tesia Marshik (link), plus see plus here and here for just a couple of the blogs on this subject.