There’s no way of talking about learning styles without adding a giant asterisk next to your work. It’s become something of a controversial topic, with proponents and detractors butting heads on a regular basis. Despite most of the research telling us otherwise, the notion that we all learn best in different ways remains popular. In fact, there are entire industries dedicated to identifying learning styles.
But popular notions aren’t always true. You can’t see the Great Wall of China from space. Penguins don’t mate for life. And our self-defined learning style has not been shown to have any real impact on our educational outcomes. In other words, learning styles are a myth. You can have a learning preference, but applying it won’t result in better learning experiences.
Frustration often arises because many practitioners choose to ignore the evidence against learning styles (or remain blissfully unaware of it). The continued popularity of learning styles has obscured a lot of research that would help to further our understanding of how we learn best.
As the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. But if we can stop pretending that learning styles make any real difference we can start reapplying our focus on approaches that have real impact.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what the research tells us about learning styles. But first, let’s start with a definition.
What Are Learning Styles?
An individual’s learning style refers to how they believe they best absorb, process and retain information. For example, if you were learning how to change a tyre, what approach would you take? Visual learners would likely find a ‘How to’ on Youtube. Aural learners may request advice from an expert. And verbal learners (those who prefer the written word) may refer to their car’s manual.
Some people believe they have a dominant learning style. Others rely on a mix of different styles to achieve learning nirvana. It’s also held that you can develop aptitude with other learning styles if you practice them regularly. Either way, most learning stylists believe that optimal learning happens when we appeal to learners’ beliefs about how they learn best.
Where Did Learning Styles Come From?
The world of instruction is overrun with competing models of learning styles. Perhaps the best place to start is with David Kolb. In 1984 he first set out his well-renowned experiential learning model. According to this model, the ideal learning process engages four different modes: concrete experience, abstract conceptualisation, reflective observation and active experimentation. Combining these modes in response to situational contexts results in good learning experiences.
Kolb also noted that learners come to prefer certain combinations of these modes. In other words, they develop a preference for a certain learning style. His model is still widely accepted and supported, but the idea that these preferences affect learning outcomes is disputed.
VARKing Up The Wrong Tree
However this idea never truly went away. It certainly seemed to inform Neil Fleming’s thinking in the 1980s. During this time, he was working as an inspector in the New Zealand school system. Fleming saw that some teachers found it easy to get through to students whilst others struggled. This led him to create a learning preference questionnaire. This questionnaire categorised students based on their favoured learning style. This is called the VARK model and inventory, which stands for:
- Visual: These learners have a preference for seeing. They love visual aids like graphs, charts, diagrams and so on.
- Aural: These learners have a preference for listening. They thrive on lectures, discussions, podcasts and similar audio-based experiences.
- Read / Write: These learners have a preference for the written word. They do best by reading and writing up their notes.
- Kinesthetic: These learners prefer to learn through experience. They will favour project-based and scenario-based learning.
The model suggests that learners have preferences about how they consume information and that these preferences determine the effectiveness of the learning experience. The model neatly squeezes learners into specific categories. These categories are the basis of any discussion relating to learning styles.
Why Did Learning Styles Catch On?
This categorisation would spread like wildfire through all discourse about effective learning. It’s not hard to see why. The theory has huge appeal, despite the lack of supporting evidence. After all, we all like to believe we’re special in some way. And we all love Buzzfeed-style quizzes that tell us what type of person we are. The existence of learning styles would suggest that we’re uniquely configured to absorb information in certain ways. For somebody to effectively communicate an idea with you, they need to do so on your terms.
Donald Trump relies on oral intelligence briefings because reading ‘is not [his] preferred style of learning’. This 2016 blog categorises Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci and Pablo Picasso as ‘famous visual learners’. Would they have agreed with this distinction? You’ll regularly hear individuals claim they prefer to learn through experience. Learning styles or learning preferences are a regular point of discussion.
But it’s not just those outside the world of learning who help to exacerbate the myth of learning styles. This 2015 study found that 64% of US college professors believed that adapting their teaching approach around student preferences would help improve educational outcomes. Clearly, there is an issue here that needs to be addressed and overcome. Now let’s hear from the dissenters.
What’s The Issue With Learning Styles?
The main issue with learning styles is the lack of evidence to support them. They take up a lot of focus, without providing any real benefit. Take a look at the studies below:
- The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK concluded that learning styles offer ‘low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence’.
- A recent study called ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’ concluded, ‘Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that’.
- A 2014 paper from the Journal of Educational Psychology suggested, ‘Educators may actually be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually accommodating their auditory learning style, rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills’.
There’s also evidence that suggests that we are bad at determining our own preferred style of learning. Research conducted by Gregory Krätzig and Katherine Arbuthnott contrasted learners’ own perception of their learning style against the results of a learning style questionnaire. There was less than 50% correlation. Our perception does not always align with objective reality.
Why Limit Your Learning?
These studies only begin to scratch the surface. Even Neil Fleming urged caution about reading too much into the VARK model. Back in 2006, he said: “I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants. You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it.”
In other words, having a preference tells us nothing about the quality of any associated acts. You can like football, without considering yourself to be the next Lionel Messi. You can like interior design, whilst still having a house that has serious feng shui issues. Equally, you can like visual learning without being particularly effective at it.
Neatly categorising people into specific boxes is problematic for a number of reasons. In a learning context, it can lead to fixed, structured approaches that lack flexibility. If somebody believes they are a visual learner, they may be unwilling to embrace other forms of learning, even in situations where such an approach may be beneficial. This type of pigeonholing can be dangerous. It introduces limitations to an education process that thrives on creativity.
The Final Word:
Learning isn’t easy. It takes time and effort. It can be a painful process. As such, it’s natural for us to want to ensure that this time is being used effectively. This can lead to us forming preferences for certain ways of learning that we perceive to be effective. However, we should not make the mistake of believing that our preferences determine the quality of our educational output.
The great majority of research into learning styles suggests that they have a negligible impact on our capacity for learning. Exacerbating the myth only obscures the discourse and prevents us from focusing on other learning approaches that have proven to be effective.
Good learning is learning that is free of limitation. It requires an open mind and a creative approach. In order to move forward as a discipline, learning professionals need to shift their focus from learning styles, embrace new approaches and adopt research-backed learning theories as part of their instructional arsenal. If we can achieve this collectively, then learning styles will soon become a thing of the past.
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