What are learning styles?
The term ‘learning styles’ will be a very familiar term to most readers. It refers to two related ideas: firstly that students have different preferences for how learning material is presented, and secondly that when material is presented in a way that suits a learner’s preference, learning is somehow enhanced. This matching of learner preference with material to improve outcomes is known as the ‘meshing hypothesis’. Although as many as 71 different learning style schemes have been proposed[i], most typically learners are categorised as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic: the VAK model. Using this categorisation, a visual learner is thought to learn material more effectively (for example, show better retention) when it’s presented via pictures, charts or diagrams, rather than lectures or discussions as for auditory learners, or body movement and object manipulation for kinaesthetic learners. According to proponents of learning styles, the way in which learning material is presented is better determined by who is learning than by what is being learned.
Does the evidence support learning styles?
Although plenty has been written about learning styles due to their intuitive appeal, there have been surprisingly few empirical studies. Any robust test of the meshing hypothesis would determine the learning styles of a group of students, then present a learning task to half the students in their preferred modality and half in a non-preferred modality. The hypothesis would then be supported if the students who had been presented with material in their preferred modality out-performed the others. So far, the vast majority of studies adopting this design have found a negative result- there is no link between students’ reported learning style and performance[ii].
The disadvantage of the ‘learning styles’ approach
Despite this lack of supporting evidence, the use of learning styles in the classroom is widespread. In a report published by Department for Education and Skills[iii], 66% of 347 UK schools surveyed reported that they teach according to students’ preferred learning styles. Two major difficulties with the use of learning styles in schools are that labelling children as a given type of learner (in some schools, literally) may limit children’s self-identity[iv]; and secondly, the use of commercially available tools for the measurement of students’ learning styles, and advice about how best to teach accordingly, are costly and time-consuming.
Teaching methods according to content rather than learner
Of course the way in which material is presented in the classroom is important, but it should be determined by the content of the material rather than the stated preference of the learners. In some cases what we learn is inherently linked to a modality, for example learning the noise a cow makes happens via the auditory system and is stored as an auditory memory. But in most cases when we learn a fact we remember the meaning, independent of how we learned it[v]. There is, however, emerging evidence that presenting material in multiple modalities may be beneficial for all learners[vi].
Where more evidence is needed
As ever, more evidence is needed before we can dismiss learning styles entirely. Suggestive findings, like that people are fairly consistent in reporting learning preferences[vii], and the fact that children do differ in aptitude for different types of tasks, indicate that maybe we just need to find better ways to measure and take advantage of learning preferences. Part of the issue here might be that aptitude in different areas, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to relate to learning preferences[viii].
More generally, we know that pupils are different from one another and tailoring educational curricula is a major focus in education at the moment[ix]. Changes in the use of technology in the classroom are likely to make personalised learning ever more possible, as students make choices about their own learning. At the same time though, excellent research is emerging around the kind of changes that can be made in classrooms to benefit everyone’s learning, like reducing auditory noise levels[x], which may ultimately prove to be much better value for money in an increasingly stretched education system. The bottom line at the moment is that, as much as the idea is intuitively plausible, there’s no good evidence for the value of measuring or drawing on learning styles in schools. The verdict? Neuro-myth.
For a summary of empirical work: Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46, 630-635
For a thorough review of the evidence in this area: Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 106-116.
For a view of how personalised learning could maximise every child’s genetically determined potential see Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin’s book ‘G is for Genes’.
[v] Willingham, D. (2005). Do visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners need visual auditory and kinaesthetic instruction? The American Educator
[viii] Massa, L.J., & Mayer, R.E. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences, 16, 321–336.