Learning Styles Are A Myth
A thoroughly-debunked theory has gained near-universal acceptance among educators
Odds are you’ve heard of learning styles– the theory that there are a few distinct ways of learning, and each person will learn most effectively if they’re taught in the one of those styles that works best for you. That second thing– the idea that everyone has a single style that works best for them– is called the meshing hypothesis.
Most likely you’ve heard of the VAK model– visual, auditory, kinesthetic. You may also have heard of the newer VARK model– visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.
Learning style theory has been around since the 70’s, started to really catch on in the 90’s, and has become widely accepted in educational circles– around 89% of educators believe in it, and that number doesn’t seem to be going down.
The evidence for learning styles and meshing theory was never very strong to begin with, and the weight of evidence has turned strongly against it in the 21st century. Unfortunately though, you’ll rarely see this mentioned in popular media. Learning styles are still heavily advocated by education websites aimed at parents and students, colleges, mainstream parenting websites, parenting websites with a religious bent, and worst of all, university pages aimed at education graduates.
To summarize the case against learning styles:
First, teachers are terrible at figuring out what their student’s favored learning styles are.
Second, assessment quizzes are too– 70% of the time, they don’t match the learning style students report actually using. And if you haven’t guessed, these are the same assessments used in many studies that purportedly showed support for learning style theory.
Third, a vast array of studies now shows that everyone, or nearly everyone, learns better via multi-modal learning– that is, by mixing these learning styles rather than using just one. Most Nepalese pre-med students prefer multi-modal learning, as do a large majority of Saudi medical students.
So what’s preferences– what about performance? A study of students at UC Santa Barbara concluded that In Experiments 1 and 2, our extensive study of verbalizer-visualizer measures failed to yield convincing evidence for the idea that adding pictorial aids to an on-line lesson helped visualizers more than verbalizers or that adding verbal aids to an on-line lesson helped verbalizers more than visualizers. Overall, in spite of careful testing using more than a dozen verbalizer-visualizer measures, we were unable to find support for the ATI hypothesis that verbal learners should be given verbal instruction and visual learners should be given visual instruction. Instead, adding pictorial aids to an on-line lesson that was heavily text-based tended to help both visualizers and verbalizers. These results are consistent with what Mayer (2001) calls the multimedia effect: people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. Similarly, in Experiment 3, we were also unable to find support for the ATI hypothesis when we used the both versus none treatments. Finally, the lack of main effects attributable to verbalizer-visualizer measures is consistent with the idea that people can learn equally well as verbalizers or visualizers.
As a side note, reviewing the research on learning styles has really driven home just how widespread this theory has become– most of the studies are from foreign countries, and a wide variety of them too.
As a final note, many learning style classifications seem confused about what they’re even classifying. For instance, the Learning Styles Wiki– yes, that’s a thing that exists– says that kinesthetic learners include:
Whole body learners.
Hands on learners.
Students learning through emotional experience
It’s not immediately clear why emotional experience and body movement are the same learning style, nor why doodling is kinesthetic rather than visual.
And then there’s the seven-factor learning style classification, probably the second most popular after VARK. Let’s take a look at those seven styles.
So the first thing that might jump out at you is that the distinction between aural and verbal is a bit fuzzy, and reading the linked web page doesn’t entirely clear that up. But the bigger issue is that we seem to have three different ideas here about what learning styles theory is even trying to classify.
Four of these– visual, kinesthetic, aural and verbal– are types of sensory input. Social and solitary are interpersonal preferences. Logical is a style of thinking.
It should go without saying, but you need to learn to think logically whether you prefer it or not. You probably need to learn to work both alone and in groups, too. Come to think of it, you probably can’t opt out of learning to read, listen, and move your body.
In short, learning styles theory has been roundly disproven, to the point where for the past few years, studies on it have mostly asked questions like “How many people still believe this” (almost everyone, as it turns out), “Why do they believe it,” and “How can we make them understand that it just isn’t true?”
The good news is that most educators still use multi-modal learning because, even if you believe in learning styles, you have to teach your class as a group, so teachers tend to accidentally do the right thing here. Hopefully someday soon they’ll understand that multi-modal instruction is actually better for nearly everyone.
And the truth about learning styles is getting out, thanks to popular media sites like The Atlantic, science media sites such as Scientific American, and schools including Yale University. Teachers just need to get the memo.
The more practical implication for you (unless you’re a teacher) is that you should forget learning styles and engage in multi-modal learning yourself. Read about something, then listen to a podcast or watch a video on it, take some notes, and practice it. Our brains evolved to use all of our senses in combination, and letting some of them go to waste isn’t really better for anyone.
This article has been all text, so in the spirit of multi-modal instruction, here’s a visual aid for you:
Image Source. The actual original source no longer exists.