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Stop "Fixing" Your Brain by Believing in Learning Styles

Using a growth mindset intervention to challenge ideas about learning.

By Dr. Lisa C. Duffin

Imagine that a struggling college freshman confides in you that they are having difficulty learning the material in one of their classes. When you ask what specific problems they are having, the student says, “I go to class and the professor lectures for the whole 80 minutes. I try to listen and write down what the professor puts on the PowerPoint, but I miss what he is saying. I am a hands-on learner, and this class is going to be the death of me.”

Of the two choices below, which one would you select as a response to this student?

  • A: The professor is not teaching to your learning style, so I would recommend that you seek out a professor who would teach with more hands-on activities in order to ensure success.
  • B: The problem you are having right now is that you are limited in the strategies you are using to make sense of the information the professor is sharing. You can be successful in this class if you just develop better learning habits.

Whether you select option A or B, your decision stems from an underlying belief about how people learn. Beliefs about learning—once established—tend to be deep-seated, difficult to change, and have a considerable impact on one’s motivation, behavior, and achievement (Bandura, 1997; Pajares, 1992). Thus, it is important that people have adaptive rather than maladaptive views of learning.

For those of you who selected option A, your ideas align with those of many college students, higher education faculty, primary and secondary teachers, and members of the general public who believe that teaching to a student’s learning style enhances learning. Unfortunately, you have fallen prey to a popular learning myth or misconception about the brain and its functioning (Dekker et al., 2012; Howard-Jones, 2014; Macdonald et al., 2017).

The visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK) learning styles myth is arguably the most well-known and influential of the 70-plus learning style models found to date in the literature and on popular consumer websites (Coffield et al., 2004). The VAK learning styles myth rests on three problematic assumptions (e.g., Kirschner, 2016), each having research to refute them.

Assumption 1: The learner has a dominant sensory modality. This sensory modality processes information independently, and thus more efficiently, in the brain than do the other sensory modalities.

Refutation: Visual, auditory, and motor input modalities in the brain are interconnected. This interconnectedness helps individuals process information. In addition, multisensory cues enhance detection and identification of stimuli and improve reaction time (Calvert et al., 2000; Dehaene et al., 1998; Hershenson, 1962; Morrell, 1968). In other words, your brain is more efficient when it processes similar information through multiple senses at once (Clark & Paivio, 1991).

Assumption 2: One’s dominant sensory modality (i.e., learning style) can be definitively determined through self-identification or testing.

Refutation: People often identify as a specific type of learner because they have experienced success using a certain learning strategy (e.g., writing detailed notes) or being in a given learning environment (e.g., teacher models a procedure and the students follow). This success inspires repetitive practice, increased efficiency, and comfort, which people attribute to a learning style rather than to a preference that can change with other experiences (Riener & Willingham, 2010).

For many strategies or learning environments, people fail to realize they are engaging more than one sense at any given time. Engaging more than one sense at a time has a significant impact on the brain’s processing capabilities and outcomes (Clark & Paivio, 1991). For example, a person identifying as a “visual” learner might prefer to take notes because they need to “see the material to learn.” However, when the learner is taking notes during a lecture, they are actually engaging sight, sound, and touch—not to mention the cognitive resources required for successful learning like attention and encoding!

Furthermore, learning styles identification via testing is also problematic because of reliability and validity concerns of the instruments people use to assess learning styles (Coffield et al., 2004; Peterson et al., 2009). The phrase “learning style” can be defined in a number of ways (e.g., a preference in strategy, an instructional approach, a faulty view of how the brain works). As such, great inconsistencies in learning style measures exist which weaken any predictive power (Kirschner, 2016).

Assumption 3: Aligning instruction to learning style results in optimal learning.

Refutation: Numerous studies have found no improved learning outcomes when instructional method was matched to VAK learning style (e.g., Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Rogowsky et al., 2014). Pedagogical effectiveness is predicated on the careful consideration of evidence-based best practices for the content in relation to students’ prior knowledge, ability, and interests—three key areas where students differ (Riener & Willingham, 2010), not on a match between supposed learning style and instruction modality.

Why is it a problem if people believe in learning styles?

Problems arise when people believe in the VAK learning styles myth. In the classroom, a teacher who believes that children learn most information via one predominant sensory modality may waste a lot of time and effort attempting to identify each student’s learning style and creating learning experiences to match. These efforts waste time, energy, and precious financial resources (Newton, 2015; Willingham et al., 2015) with little payoff.

In addition, when teachers limit the types of experiences students have (e.g., giving auditory learners excessive opportunities to listen to material rather than view or physically experience), they may be limiting the brain’s natural capacity to engage in important synaptic changes (i.e., neuroplasticity) which are important for healthy brain development and information processing (Voss et al., 2017). Because teachers are trusted adults, children often adopt similar beliefs about VAK learning styles; these beliefs often handicap learners as they advance in the education system.

A student who believes they only learn one way might adopt a fixed mindset or idea that human attributes (like intelligence or ability to learn) cannot change (Dweck, 2006). Those who have a fixed mindset often struggle when faced with academic challenges, resulting in lower engagement, motivation, grade-point averages, and overall success compared to students who have a growth mindset, the belief that increased effort and strategy use can improve learning outcomes (Dweck, 2006). Thus, poor performance may be blamed on (or attributed to) being incapable or on the teacher and learning environment, rather than on a learner’s effort or strategy implementation (Sinatra & Jacobson, 2019). Because students gravitate towards what they deem as their dominant learning style, they may be limiting their experiences in a variety of subject areas and as a consequence reducing career options unknowingly (Newton, 2015; Willingham et al., 2015).

We can change our brain.

In our experimental research, we have been successful at changing the way our participants think about learning (Collings & Duffin, 2018; Duffin & Collings, 2019). We have found that when college students learn about the brain and its capacity to change (i.e., neuroplasticity; Boyd, 2015; Sentis, 2012), explore the research that refutes the assumptions underlying learning styles (Memorize Academy, 2017), and investigate specific strategies for better learning (i.e., ANSWER method; Memorize Academy, 2016; Weinstein et al., 2018), they feel more empowered in their own learning. Whether participants engaged in a one-time, 20-minute online intervention or a semester-long, face-to-face intervention, we have seen a significant decline in the prevalence of VAK learning style beliefs measured both quantitatively (Dekker et al., 2012; Rato et al., 2013) and qualitatively. The impact of the work is best described by one of our participants who was a junior elementary education major at the time of the study:

“Knowing now that I am not limited by a specific learning style and that I can grow my brain through challenge and experience has liberated me. I feel so stupid that I believed what I was told instead of questioning authority and evaluating the research for myself. Your brain is a complex organ; why on earth would we want to simplify it? I am so grateful for this opportunity because now I have tools to be a better learner, a better consumer of information, and a more equipped agent of change.”

Feel free to explore the intervention materials here.


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