Myth 35: There are different “learning styles”.

We’ve all grown up being told that we learn better in different ways: some by doing, some by seeing, some by hearing…  This notion supported by the very real feeling that we do, in fact, absorb information better in some learning environments than in others.  Well, the Association for Psychological Science now says that learning styles are all a bunch of hooey.  They have reviewed all recognized studies that claim that a “visual learner” or an “auditory learner” exists, and have concluded that those studies “have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.”  That being said, it is still entirely possible that “learning styles” actually do exist, but basically what APS has declared is that nobody has ever sufficiently proven it.

The following was written by Association for Psychological Science:

Are you a verbal learner or a visual learner? Chances are, you’ve pegged yourself or your children as either one or the other and rely on study techniques that suit your individual learning needs. And you’re not alone— for more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence on education. The long-standing popularity of the learning styles movement has in turn created a thriving commercial market amongst researchers, educators, and the general public.

The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

Unfortunately, the answer is no, according to a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning—Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles)—reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design. Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

To read further on teaching and learning practices science does support, see the following articles:

“Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time” by Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler in Current Directions in Psychological Science. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118000121/abstract

“The Read-Recite-Review Study Strategy: Effective and Portable” by Mark A. McDaniel, Daniel C. Howard, and Gilles O. Einstein in Psychological Science. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122269051/abstract

“Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention” Henry L. Roediger, III, and Jeffrey D. Karpicke in Psychological Science.
http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118597351/abstract

For a PDF of, “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, or any of the reports listed above, please contact Ms. Kevin Lyn Sisson at 202-293-9300 x117 or ksisson@psychologicalscience.org.

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6 Responses

  1. Anecdotally, I have long been aware that I have a better memory for things that I hear. For my part, I think the issue is, as is so often the case, that we like to take a theory and make it the end-all-be-all of the subject. Learning styles seem to have been extrapolated far beyond what their actual utility might be.

    I mean, I can fully believe that Person A could learn something best by reading, and Person B could learn something best by doing a hands-on project. But I don’t think it follows that Person C is going to be best at learning through interpretive dance.

  2. […] styles has actually never been scientifically demonstrated. I could have sworn it seemed true, but Mommy Myth Busters have just busted it. We’ve all grown up being told that we learn better in different ways: some by doing, some by […]

  3. I think the issue is we all learn differently, but there’s no reason to think it follows certain “styles” or we can’t learn by other “styles.” Obviously one person might retain certain knowledge better by teaching it to others, while another might best retain it by applying it to life. But it’s so dependent on the individual and the subject that they’re learning and their state of mind at the time they are learning it. So it’s absolutely important to integrate auditory, visual, hands-on, etc methods into every lesson, but equally important to understand that no one child will ALWAYS learn best by one of those methods, and we can’t pigeonhole students.

  4. Now, this is interesting… Just recently, I’ve learned that people are not just right- or left-handed, but also “right-eyed”, “right-eared” and “right-footed”. Apparently, the usual thing is to have a lateral dominance on all organs, but occasionally you can find a right-handed person who happens to be “left-eyed”, and that seems to be a problem when you are learning to read and write. I just found out I have this “problem” (it musn’t be that bad, if I managed to get my law degree without anyone noticing), but I sorted it out myself by turning left-handed just when holding a pencil. For the rest (sewing, using cutlery or scissors, holding a tennis raquet…), I use my wise right hand.
    Now my eldest daughter has turned like me, and is showing some difficulty reading and writing tidily. I am glad her teachers didn’t rush to get her “professional help”, but decided to just wait and see if she can sort it out by herself, knowing that she will just need more time than her peers.

  5. My feeling is that “learning styles” are more a matter of preferences for certain kinds of activities – and that if there is a difference in learning outcomes (which apparently has not been shown) it is only because motivated, interested people learn better (which has been shown, btw). So if a particular kind of activity engages a particular learner more (because he enjoys it), then he may learn more, or learn more deeply and richly – for the simple reason that he’s paying closer attention.

    On the other hand, not all material is equally suited to all different kinds of activities. Sometimes, you just have to read something. Or listen to a speaker.

    BUT if you have intellectual curiosity and discipline, you should be able to learn the material no matter the delivery style of the instructor.

    I am a teacher myself, and while I admit I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the whole learning styles business, I will say that attempting to integrate different kinds of activities that stimulate different senses into classes does make me a better teacher. It forces me to think outside of routine and come up with fresh ideas. And it makes the class more interesting. So at least in that respect, the discussion of learning styles – whether scientifically valid or not – has still yielded some positive results in my classroom.

  6. The evidence I have seen–in my own classroom, in my family, and in the literature–is that the idea that “learning styles are a myth” is itself a widely propagated myth. See http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/LS_Validity(On-Course).pdf for some examples of the literature on the subject.

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