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 most recent study which used this design was published in 2020[iii]. In this study, which was based in the United States, 125 10- to 11-year-olds were tested twice on listening and reading comprehension: first after being given instruction via the visual modality; then again after being given instruction via the auditory modality. Students were then asked to complete a popular self-assessed learning styles inventory to categorise their learning style. If an effect of different learning styles existed, we would expect to see that students performed better after receiving instruction in their preferred modality. However, this study did not find any relationships between performance on the listening and reading tests, instructional modality, and the category of learning style to which children had been assigned.
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[iv], 66% of 347 UK schools surveyed reported that they teach according to students’ preferred learning styles. A survey from 2012 found that up to 93% of UK teachers believed in learning styles [v], and as recently as 2021, learning styles continues to be the most popularly endorsed neuromyth in education [vi].
Two major difficulties with the use of learning styles in schools are that labelling children as a given type of learner may limit children’s self-identity[vii]; 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 – especially when they have not demonstrated relevance to learning outcomes. The authors of the recent paper which found no evidence for a relationship between learning styles and comprehension concluded that ‘teachers may actually be doing a disservice to students by using resources to determine their learning style and then tailoring the curriculum to match that learning style’[iii].
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[viii]. There is, however, emerging evidence that presenting material in multiple modalities may be beneficial for all learners[ix]. While multimodal/multisensory teaching often draws upon various learning style theories, including VAK, the distinction is that rather than restricting the materials that individuals have access to, it broadens them for every learner by presenting the same topic in multiple modalities. As the brain must coordinate sensory information received across multiple different specialised areas to perform most learning tasks, this type of integrative approach seems well-suited to how students in general learn, whilst also providing flexibility for individuals to draw on their preferred resources[x].
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[xi], 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 doesn’t seem to relate to learning preferences[iii][xi].
More generally, we know that pupils are different from one another and tailoring educational curricula is a major focus in education at the moment[xii]. 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[xiii], 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. Moreover, there exists the possibility that the learning styles approach is based on a mistaken assumption – that you’ll learn better when learning feels easy (rather than, say, that learning is what happens when you are made to think hard). The verdict? Neuro-myth. Possibly one of the most prevalent in education.
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’.
The Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit provides an excellent summary of the evidence and issues surrounding learning styles here.
[ii] Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46, 630-635. https://doi.org/ 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x
[iii] Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2020). Providing instruction based on students’ learning style preferences does not improve learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00164
[v] Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
[vi] Hughes, B., Sullivan, K. A., & Gilmore, L. (2021). Neuromyths about learning: Future directions from a critical review of a decade of research in school education. PROSPECTS. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-021-09567-5
[vii] Horne, M., & Lownsbrough, H. (2004). About learning: Report of the Learning Working Group. Demos. https://www.demos.co.uk/files/About_learning.pdf
[viii] Willingham, D. (2005). Do visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners need visual auditory and kinaesthetic instruction? The American Educator.
[ix] Shams, L., & Seitz, A. R. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (11), 411-417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2008.07.006
[x] Dantas, L. A., & Cunha, A. (2020). An integrative debate on learning styles and the learning process. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 2(1), 100017. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssaho.2020.100017
[xi] 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2006.10.001
[xiii] Shield. B. M., & Dockrell, J. E. (2008). The effects of environmental and classroom noise on the academic attainments of primary school children. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123, 133. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.2812596