We say “pshaw” to learning styles

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 8, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time, but as any faithful readers might have noted, I’ve been a bit in-absentia for the past several months. I was off busy making some money to support my blogging habit, but I’m happy to report that I’m back, and working on ramping up my addition once again. So, look forward to more meaty posts from me this summer! [[Note… I actually wrote this and posted it almost a week ago, and for some reason it was posted with a March 23 date!  So, here it is again.]]

We all learn differently, right? I might be an auditory learner, so I should receive information mostly through the spoken word. My classmate is a visual learner, so she needs to see graphs, pictures, and written text. Well, not so fast. Though this is a popular idea, it’s been extensively criticized — so much so, that even the Wikipedia article suggests that the idea has questionable merit.

Auditory learners???

First, what are learning styles? The Kolb Learning Style Inventory is a well-known assessment, which assesses how a learner prefers to learn. Kolb’s model is based on something called experiential learning theory, which isn’t based on the more familiar auditory/visual/reading/kinesthetic division lines (called the VARK model). Rather, Kolb’s styles are called Concrete Experience (someone who prefers an experience based approach to learning), Reflective Observation (an observatory, passive, introverted approach), Abstract Conceptualization (an analytic, conceptual, logical learner), and Active Experimentation (active, rather than passive, learning, such as projects and group discussions). Based on the scores on these different dimensions, learners can be grouped into different categorizations, similar to the Myers’ Briggs test (which also rates people on different dimensions and gives them a personality type based on those dimensions).

The problem is, there’s no real evidence that you learn better if a teacher presents information in a way that matches your purported learning style on such a measure. A recent review article (by Harold Pashler et al, including Robert Bjork, a longtime critic of learning styles) makes this case strongly. From the abstract:

A large number of studies have purported to show that different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”) learn best when taught in their preferred modality; but the majority of such studies have not used the type of randomized research designs (e.g., classify learners into categories, then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods and assess effectiveness of the learning methods with a test given to all participants) that would make their findings credible. What psychological evidence does show is that people are inclined to hold false beliefs about how they learn and that they tend to learn and teach others in nonoptimal ways. Among other things, the report has significant implications for instructional approaches, and underscores the need to ensure that teaching methods are informed by sound scientific research, not fad educational theories or intuition.

This article is summarized very well in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here, along with a plethora of comments). They find that, although a student might enjoy a lesson more when presented in their preferred learning style, they might actually learn better from a task more suited to the particular content. For example in a lesson on molecular structure, all learners benefit from using hands-on models, even though a verbal learner would prefer to receive a lecture.

What this means for instructors, Mr. Pashler says, is that they should not waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in their classrooms. (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?)

Instead, teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.

The good thing about learning styles, of course, is that it has opened our eyes to the idea that there are different ways to teach content, and so instructors have moved towards using a wide range of instructional techniques. That’s a good thing for everyone, regardless of their individual learning style. Turns out that even Kolb agrees — he never advocated that teachers should match their instruction to students’ learning styles, though he does argue that students should think about their own learning style when choosing their major. This kind of metacognition, I would argue, can benefit us all.

But where it can be really detrimental is when parents or students say that they didn’t do well in a class because the teacher didn’t match their learning styles (see Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum for a parody of this effect). Learning styles can be a crutch or an excuse for a student to avoid doing the work necessary to learn. And because students often report more satisfaction with teaching when a teacher matches their learning style, a student’s belief in learning styles can actually harm their own learning, by pressuring a teacher to change their teaching approach. Course evaluations can be a powerful force!

On the other hand, a cognitive psychologist (Daniel Willingham) argues here that learning styles don’t even exist.

He argues that learning styles are a moot point. If we’re better at processing auditory information than visual information, that just means that we’re better at processing through that route (like hearing the tone of a word), not that we’re better at learning that way. Hearing the sound of a word doesn’t actually help us learn the meaning of that word.

I’ll close with a nice quote from Louis Schmier

There is a Zen saying that in the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. How true. It’s not much different on our campuses, is it. We love to herd students into boxes and slap labels on them out of our own minds, believe them to be true, and then act as if they are true. [We] have to go beyond the idea of a student to the real student. And, we can only do that if we teach outside the box and go beyond the labels.

There are some other strong critiques of learning styles, such as Stahl (1999), who relates the enduring interest in learning styles with our tendency to see the vague statements and predictions of fortune tellers. You can also see a great review of the topic, with some additional references, over at the Occams Donkey blog.

The take-home message: Don’t bother to try to match your teaching style to your students’ learning styles. If they complain, cite these studies, and tell them that how we like to get information isn’t necessarily how we learn best. Instead, the research suggests that all students benefit from receiving information in multiple modes, with a mixture of chalk-and-talk and active learning methods.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn Elert June 9, 2010 at 12:57 am

Thank you for writing this article. When there is no evidence to support an educational policy, the policy needs to be changed or abandoned. Varying teaching styles is good practice, but the style should always be appropriate to the content. We shouldn’t be “dancing about architecture”.

Derek Bruff June 9, 2010 at 3:11 am

I worry that all this backlash against learning styles will just reinforce teacher-centered instruction. If my students don’t really learn differently from each other, then why should I bother paying attention to how they learn? Whatever I do will be equally effective for all students, so I’ll just focus on what I’m doing in the classroom–not how my students are learning.

In Richard Felder’s learning style model, some students lean toward reflective learning (thinking to themselves as they process new ideas) while others lean toward active learning (discussing new ideas with others in order to understand them). Felder notes in one of his papers that the traditional lecture approach doesn’t serve *either* type of student! There’s no time for reflection since the instructor is constantly talking, and there’s no time for peer-to-peer discussion for the same reason!

I worry that the message “learning styles don’t matter” will be interpreted as “go ahead and lecture the whole time” since there’s “no reason” to pay attention to active and reflective learning.

James Zimmerman June 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I don’t really think this article is saying “go ahead and lecture the whole time” – those that take this position (not you Derek 🙂 ) need to read deeper into the relevant research literature. I think (and rightly so) that this article is defending the position that there is no theoretical or research literature that definitively supports the idea of VARK learning styles. There is however, a substantial literature supporting Biggs’ idea of student approaches to learning (surface, strategic, deep) that is a such more useful concept to apply in HEd classrooms.

sciencegeekgirl June 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I think Derek’s comment could be prescient. Indeed, we want to use evidence (as Glenn says) to support our teaching strategies. But indeed, people often misconstrue subtle messages (like “teaching to a learning style isn’t empirically supported”) to mean something simpler (like “we should all teach by lecture because everyone learns the same way.”)

I’m not as familiar with the entire learning style literature as I could be. Thanks for the comment, James, I’ll take a look at Biggs’ “student approaches.” I’ve heard reference to them before.


DavidCL June 9, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Hm… I’m having mixed reactions to this post. I guess my first question is this: is it true that NONE of the learning style theories are empirically supported? It sounds to me like learning style theories are being questioned (which is, of course good), and re-evaluated (which is, of course, good) and that some of the models may not be helpful. But I’m concerned that Willingham– and others– may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I’ve found Felder’s work on learning styles valuable in my teaching– more so than the VARK model. I teach computer programming to (primarily) artists, and the visual-verbal axis that Felder describes feels like a big factor in my classes. I find that I have to consciously make sure I spend time on both sides of that axis; too much time on either side and I lose some students.

This isn’t “dancing about architecture”– the fact is most programming concepts have both a verbal component and a visual representation, and it’s helpful to my students to see both.

My experience is anecdotal, obviously, and I’m not up-to-date on current literature in this field. But “Don’t bother to try to match your teaching style to your students’ learning styles” seems like it understates the potential value of these approaches.

sciencegeekgirl June 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm


I think your comment illustrates Derek’s point. We wouldn’t want instructors to take these results to mean that they shouldn’t try to teach in multiple modes (e.g., verbal and visual). Those multiple modes of presentation are often helpful especially, as the article stated, when they’re matched to how it’s best to teach that particular material. In the article, the example was of molecular models, which might be best taught with a strong visual component (regardless of the “learning style” of the student). In your example of programming, including both strong visual and verbal components (regardless of the “learning style” of the student) sounds like it matches the content.

It is helpful to present in multiple modes. But if the research shows no positive connection between a students purported “learning style” and their actual learning, then is it really a learning style? By definition, if they don’t learn better in that mode, then it doesn’t seem like a learning style to me.

However, even this kind of nay-saying research doesn’t actually seem to suggest that learning styles don’t *exist* at all. But rather that it’s not worthwhile to try to tailor instruction to the learning style of a particular student. If considering the different types of ways that people learn helps prepare a class, that’s a good thing. But I think it’s been detrimental when people argue that they *can’t* learn in a way that doesn’t match their learning style, and when large amounts of funding for education are funneled towards vendors selling books and workshops designed to direct teachers how to assess and then teach to their students’ learning styles.

To answer your question of whether the article is saying that all learning styles are bogus, I had to go back to the original article (which you can read for free at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/index.cfm?journal=pspi&content=pspi/9_3). Some of the key findings are:
1. People will indeed express preference for how they learn (learning style)
2. People have different aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and information processing
3. There is no substantiated evidence that those preferences and aptitudes interact with type of instruction, so that those with a particular learning style or aptitude learn better with a particular type of instruction.

They are defining “learning style” very broadly. He cites Dunn and Dunn, Kolb, and Honey and Mumford as the main learning styles assessments on the market, but their review covered the literature quite comprehensively. They discuss studies more than particular learning style inventories or theories.

So, they don’t argue that learning styles don’t exist — we have different aptitudes — but that there is no evidence that adapting your instructional method to the learning style of a group of people is going to be more effective in helping them learn the material. While an individual student might gain insight from a particular method whereas another doesn’t, this common occurrence doesn’t necessarily align with any learning style. They urge a varied approach to teaching that suits the material.

Of course, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but this is a fairly comprehensive review, though not without its critics.

I recommend reading the intro and conclusions of the article, it’s quite an interesting read.

Jeremy Haugen June 12, 2010 at 2:05 am

This is interesting, because I’ve been giving my students a learning style survey for a couple of years now. The only thing that it tells me is who likes to learn.

You see, our ‘good’ kids score above medium to great in each of the areas. The classically ‘bad’ students score low in almost every area (except ‘social’… not surprising if they can get someone else to do the work for them).

When I have a student who is low in all areas except one (if that’s not social) then I pull them aside and we talk about it. Those are the students who can really benefit from an understanding of the results.

share the knack June 25, 2010 at 10:43 am

For me and when I used to teach, I find the student must want to learn, the teaching style should not make any difference, the student needs to run experiments in his/her mind and try and get results. One of the ways for students to do that, is get them creating, I am not talking about assignments and such, get them creating objects, examples a crystal radio, or what ever. Instead of teaching science in a way to get the students to fit in or get a job, teach them science in the creative stream. I believe the better the education, the better the creations.

Leon Stander April 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Stephanie, thank you for linking to my blog. I’m glad you found my post on learning styles helpful. I agree that the message to take from this is that teachers should taylor their teaching to the subject content, not to the purported learning styles of their students. Over here (South Africa) we currently have an onslaught of quack educational therapies in which learning styles and multiple intelligences feature prominently.

sciencegeekgirl April 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for the comment, Leon. Yes, we also have a bunch of “educational therapies” (never heard that term — very apt!) using learning styles. That’s the real damage of the idea, spending money and effort on something that’s not likely to affect student learning.

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