If you've been anywhere around education in the past few decades, you'll have heard of learning styles. Students are given quizzes to help them determine which kind of learner they "are": auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. As teachers, we are taught to ensure that we use a variety of activities in our class so that we can reach each of these different kinds of learners.
But is there any science behind these learning styles?
In this article, we'll dive into what learning styles supposedly are, whether they really have a significant impact on the way our students learn, and what that means for your teaching.
The learning styles hypothesis
The learning styles myth is based on the hypothesis that students learn in different ways and that, if you can identify the best way each student learns, you can use that to teach most efficiently.
The problem is that the method we use to identify the ways that students learn best is by asking them how they like to learn best. In other words, we often rely on our students' self-reported preference through informal quizzes to determine what learning style is most appropriate for them.
The three learning styles most commonly cited are:
- Auditory learners. These are students that learn most effectively when information is presented through sound. Teachers would ideally use activities where they say information, give spoken instructions, or use sounds in some way.
- Visual learners. These are students who learn best when information is presented visually. Teachers would ideally include these students by providing visual information or written instructions.
- Kinesthetic learners. These are students who learn best when they physically manipulate information. Teachers would ideally include these students by incorporating hands on activities.
The learning styles myth?
The hypothesis certainly sounds good, right? Anyone that has taught a class knows all students are different. Why wouldn't they learn differently, too? It makes sense. (It would also explain why Johnny can't sit still—"he's just a kinesthetic learner!")
But there actually isn't much research to support it (criticisms of a lack of supporting research come as far back as 1980). Instead, most research calls into question the idea that learning style preferences of students really matter for their learning. I've dug into the research and it seems to suggest that there is not only little evidence supporting learning styles theory, there is just as much—if not more—against the effectiveness of learning-styles targeting as there is in favor of it.
Talk about an idea with "staying power"! Just like many urban legends and old wives tales, educators' obsession with learning styles is an idea that refuses to die.
I should note, of course, that there are actually a ton of theories about different learning styles that are not based on perceptions—as many as 71 different models. A discussion of all of them is too much to tackle and isn't what I want to really do here (see these articles for more information).
What I do want to do is give you, the teacher, the best reasons why you shouldn't worry too much about learning styles—and what you should worry about instead.
1. Learning styles don't make learning more effective
The main case against learning styles are that students’ supposed “preferences” don’t actually translate to gains in learning effectiveness.
According to Coffield et al (p. 35), “There is simply no evidence that the model is either a desirable basis for learning or the best use of investment, teacher time, initial teacher education and professional development.”
While it is natural for some students to claim that they prefer learning something through watching a video or playing a game, that does not necessarily mean they will learn better through that medium. Playing educational games may be a poor use of learning time, despite the potential gains in motivation that games may offer.
2. For many subjects, one "style" may be best for everyone
I would also like to add the argument that there is often only one empirically “best” way to learn something, rendering learning styles moot. For example, when showing someone how to do something on a computer, of course the best way for them to learn it is for them to do it on the keyboard rather than just being shown or told! (i.e. Anyone would declare themselves a “hands-on learner” when it comes to computer skills.)
Administering a general preferences survey like the Learning Styles Inventory is therefore more likely to uncover what types of things that learners prefer to learn (e.g. computers vs. history vs. math) than how they like to learn them. It would be counterproductive to take someone’s preference for “writing things down” and use that as a way to teach them Microsoft Excel or Photoshop.
3. Accommodating preferences may not always be useful
We should also be careful to pander too closely to students’ learning preferences, as the real world does not always present information in exactly the way that we prefer to encounter it. It is important for us to teach kids to learn in all different ways so that they are most adaptable to all types of learning environments they may face in the future.
4. Multimodal learning is probably the most effective
The benefit of thinking about learning styles in a classroom context is that it prompts educators to consider activities that use a variety of delivery methods. This is probably a good thing—but not necessarily because students have different learning styles.
Instead it's a good thing because we know that multimodal learning is more effective than any single learning method. Presenting information visually as well as aurally is much more effective than either of them by themselves. If an educator can further enrich the learning with a hands on project, so much the better.
So, yes, it's great to present information in a variety of ways. But rather than thinking about pleasing visual learners with this activity and auditory learners with that activity, it's probably more useful (and accurate) to think about both activities being useful for everyone.
5. Learning styles take us away from other effective strategies for teaching
Another reason the learning styles myth fails to be helpful is that it obscures what we know about what really is effective ways to teach and learn.
For example, hundreds of studies have shown us that repetition of information is effective for remembering information after it's taught in the class. Spaced repetition—where repetition is done at intervals of varying length depending on how well the students have mastered the material—is particularly effective.
We also know that active recall is a more effective study strategy than simple passive re-reading or recognition. And we're very clear that metacognition is one of the most important skills that we can teach students to make their learning more effective.
Each of these is supported with decades worth of cognitive science literature—they're much more important in terms of how students learn than students preferences for auditory stimuli as opposed to visual stimuli. If we focus on learning styles, we might not be focusing on the learning factors that are really important and that might make a really big difference for a student's learning.
The take-away: re-calibrate towards what we know is important in learning
So what do you do as a teacher from all this? Try to build in activities that we know are good for everyone's learning.
It's possible that learning styles are important, but the most recent research seems to suggest otherwise. In some ways, it's not that important: you probably should be including a variety of activities in your classes regardless. That's because we know that students—all students—benefit from multimodal learning environments.
You can also build other evidence-based learning strategies into your lessons or use them as an out-of-class complement. Brainscape is one way to do this. We've designed our digital flashcard platform on principles of cognitive science and the psychology of learning, so we know it works—and it'll work for all students, not just those with a particular learning style. (But we accept that still won't teach students how to do advanced calculus problems or become a great computer programmer, even if they say they "prefer" to learn with flashcards!)
By taking the approach of creating evidence-based learning environments and lessons that are effective for everyone, we'll enable learning for everyone, regardless of whether they have a rigid learning style or not.
Finally, remember that there will always be “experts” urging us to tailor each curriculum to individual students’ “learning styles”. But any savvy educator should take any such advice with a grain of salt.
[Want more advice to take with a grain of salt? We've got lots ... and it's all backed up by science. Check out our guide on how to double your students' knowledge retention.]
Cassidy, S. (2004). Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, and measures. Educational Psychology, 24(4), 419-444. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144341042000228834
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K., Coffield, F., Moseley, D., ... & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, England: Learning & Skills Research Centre. https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A13692
Coffield, F. (2008). Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority. LSN Learning. London.
Freedman, R. D., & Stumpf, S. A. (1980). Learning style theory: Less than meets the eye. Academy of Management Review, 5(3), 445-447. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.1980.4288873
Magana, A. J., Serrano, M. I., & Rebello, N. S. (2019). A sequenced multimodal learning approach to support students' development of conceptual learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 35(4), 516-528. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12356
Odendaal, A. (2019). Individual differences between the practising behaviours of six pianists: A challenge to Perceptual Learning Style theory. Research Studies in Music Education, 41(3), 368-383. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1321103X18774365
Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning Styles: Where's the Evidence? Medical Education, 46(7), 634-635. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED535732
Romanelli, F., Bird, E., & Ryan, M. (2009). Learning styles: a review of theory, application, and best practices. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 73(1). https://dx.doi.org/10.5688%2Faj730109