The Truth About Learning Styles (Hint: They’re a Myth)

The Truth About Learning StylesAt some point in your life, you’ve probably been asked to identify your learning style.

Are you a visual learner? An auditory learner? Maybe you learn best when there’s body movement involved (kinesthetic)?

Mapping your activities to learning styles is one of the first ‘advanced tactics’ most online learning experts will teach you. This, they claim, will improve your students’ learning.

Today, I’m here to tell you that most experts are wrong.

Where the Idea of Learning Styles Comes From

The idea of learning styles has often been intermixed with one that originated in 1983, when Gardner introduced the notion of multiple intelligences. In a landmark paper, he argued that traditional definitions of intelligence, which focused on verbal or logical/mathematical abilities, were too limited.

Later, he described multiple intelligences as a way to explain the ‘topography of the human mind’ – a sort of map that showed how multifaceted intelligence really is.

Well, educators latched onto this idea in a hurry, and soon, teaching for learning styles had become a cornerstone of teacher preparation programs, curriculum development and popular discourse.

Okay, But Where’s The Evidence?

More than 30 years having passed since Gardner first proposed multiple intelligences and countless students have experienced education designed with learning styles in mind.

In that time – and especially considering with how prevalent learning styles still are in instructional design circles – we should have loads of studies that show catering to people’s learning styles help them learn better.

The problem is that there is, to this day, no evidence that supports this idea.

None.

In fact, when the hypothesis was tested by Canadian researchers Krätzig and Arbuthnott, they found absolutely no correlation between learning styles and success. Here’s what they had to say, in a 2006 paper from the Journal of Educational Psychology:

[The learning styles hypothesis suggests that] those assessed as visual learners should show greatest ability to recall material presented in pictorial form, whereas those assessed as auditory learners should show better memory for verbal material, and kinesthetic learners should have proficiency to learn in a tactual environment. The results of this study indicate that this was not the case. (emphasis added)

What’s even more remarkable is that Gardner himself has stated many times that using multiple intelligences (MI) as a rationale for teaching according to learning styles makes no sense. He says:

MI is popular because it does not come with directions. Educators can say they have adopted it without doing anything differently. (cited in Cerruti, 2013).

Pretty damning words from the man, himself.

So What DO We Know

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the myth of learning styles persists; in fact, a 2012 study named it the most prevalent neuromyth in education.

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In many ways, the learning styles myth is almost like an urban legend: there is enough information and anecdotal evidence to make it seem true. And to be sure,  there are some things that learning style advocates do have right. For example:

  • Learners are different from each other, and these differences can impact their learning abilities. You’ll likely find it easier to master basketball skills if you are over 6 feet; that doesn’t, however, mean that you have a kinesthetic learning style. It just means that you’re tall.
  • If you can relate what you’re learning to prior experience or an interest, you’ll learn better and more deeply. If that means relating math to music (Geek alert: I once wrote a paper on the calculus of Bach’s use of counterpoint), then go for it!
  • Learners have preferences in how they like to learn – they may prefer to learn by watching video, for example. It just doesn’t impact how well they learn – chalk this one up as a variation on the satisfaction trap.
  • There is mixed evidence that multi-modal curriculum (using a mix of media, such as using audio with visuals) may work, not because it appeals to different learning styles, but because it keeps learners engaged. However, the jury is still out on this one.

There’s a great infographic that goes into more details on what we do know about the truth behind the learning styles myth; you can find that here.

The Final Word

Ultimately, what it comes down to is the same as it always has:

You need to know your learner.

You need to know what will motivate them, engage them, and keep them interested.

But you need to do that legwork. You need to get inside the heads of your students. You need to investigate things like video vs. text, audio vs. infographics.

Just don’t rely on pseudoscience like ‘learning styles’ to do the work for you.

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Where Do You Sit on the Great Learning Style Debate?

Do you still think learning styles make a difference? Or are you ready to quash it from your vocabulary?

Leave a comment, and let me know.