Learning styles

The idea of learning styles is that people have a preference for which mode information is presented in and that they learn better when the information is presented in this modality. There have been a huge number of different types but I’m going to focus on VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) as it’s the most well-known. This idea intuitively makes sense; people will learn something better if it’s presented in the mode that they are most comfortable/ they find the easiest to learn.

The idea that some students learn better than others is not controversial but that’s to do with their ability (how good they are at doing something e.g. remembering facts or navigating through a space) among other things. But the idea of learning styles relates to how they process this information (which in turn affects their ability to recall it/ understand it). Now it’s true that students display a preference for information to be presented in a certain modality, but do they actually learn better when the presentation of the information matches their preferred learning style or not? Kraemer; Rosenberg & Thompson-Schill (2009) found no evidence to support this idea.

There have also been two large-scale reviews of learning styles (Coffield; Moseley; Hall; Ecclestone, 2004 and Pasher; McDaniel; Rohrer & Bjork, 2008) and they found no evidence to support learning styles (and that it may even exacerbate issues in education as it can further segregate learners by dividing them along non-existent lines). In a recent Nature article (2015) it was classed as one of the “science myths that will not die”. Willingham, Hughes, and Dobolyi (2015) discuss how there is a paucity of scientific support for learning styles, as do Rohrer & Pashler (2012). It may even make the situation worse if a student chooses a learning style that is unproductive (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). The previous paper is an excellent overview of education urban legends and I recommend reading it.

Unfortunately, it appears to be relatively prevalent in all education including Higher Education (Newton, 2015) and 93% of participants in one study agreed that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style” (Dekker et al., 2012).

Now I’m not saying that teachers should present all their information in the same way (e.g. just reading to them) as this may get boring and you need to differentiate between learners and help them accordingly. But there is no evidence for the idea that people learn information better if it matches their preferred modality regardless of what the information actually is, so to devote time to it is to waste time that could be spent doing better things. This also isn’t to say that they definitely do not exist, but rather that the evidence for it isn’t strong enough to justify belief in it.

References:

Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning Skills and Research Centre. 1-173.

Dekker, S.; Lee, N.C.; Howard-Jones, P. & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429.

Kirschner, P.A. & J.J.G. van Merriënboer. (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.  Educational Psychologist, 48 (3), 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Kraemer, D.J.M.; Rosenberg, L.M. & Thompson-Schill, S.L. (2009). The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles. Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (12), 3792-3798.
Newton, P.M. (2015). The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 15 (6), 1908.

Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105-119

Reiner, C. & Willingham, D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retried from URL: http://www.changemag.org/archives/back%20issues/september-october%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46 (7), 634-635.

Scudellari, M. (2015). The science myths that will not die. Nature, 528, 322-325.

Willingham, D.; Hughes, E.M.; & Dobolyi, D.G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3), 266-271.

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