The Learning Styles Myth

Learning Styles Myth TEFL

Six years ago, I was regularly delivering ‘learning styles’ training sessions, until the day I found out that they don’t exist.

I felt like a complete moron.

I’d been wasting everyone’s time by encouraging practices based on a theory that’s as scientifically valid as astrology.

Admitting it and eating humble pie wasn’t exactly fun, so I did some research. I wanted to know how I’d been suckered.

Six years on, I see teachers, schools and content writers still promoting learning styles. Hence this post. I hope this info will help you better understand them, what they are and why they’re not a valid educational theory.

Let’s take a closer look.

What are ‘Learning Styles’?

The idea is that students can be categorised according to which ‘style’ of input they learn most effectively from. While there are lots of learning styles models, many of them define sensory input as a style.

For example, a student who is a ‘visual learner’ supposedly learns better when given information visually, rather than that same information delivered aurally.

Probably the most wide-spread of these models is the VAK model, where learners are categorised as having a visual (V) auditory (A) or kinaesthetic (K) dominant learning style. Teachers are then supposed to cater for these learners by presenting information in the way that best matches these learners’ preferences.

There are other learning styles models, e.g. left-brain vs, right-brain, holistic vs analytical, but the idea is the same. There are more than 70 (!) learning styles models.

I should emphasise that learning styles are theories that explain how the mind work – they’re not theories about the best way to teach.

Still, teachers for the last thirty years have extrapolated from these theories, and used them to influence the way they deliver their lessons, write content, and market their educational products.

As a way of differentiating (i.e. tweaking your lessons to better support students of different abilities within the same class), it seems to make perfect sense – students are different, and so clearly they learn differently somehow. Learning styles seems as good a reason as any, right?

Wrong. Let’s see what the research says.

What does the science say?

Despite sounding like common sense, learning styles theories fall apart when tested. As Hattie & Yates wrote, in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn;

“…there is not any recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better than not knowing their learning style”

(For more info, there are links to four comprehensive research reviews on learning styles at the end of this article).

In 2017, thirty leading academics in education, psychology and neuroscience sent a letter to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, stating the serious validity concerns with learning styles and recommending against their usage.

In addition, Trinity College and Cambridge have recently removed ‘learning styles’ as an assessment criteria from their NQF Level 7 teaching qualifications, the DipTESOL and DELTA respectively. This was in response to the overwhelming lack of evidence, and their potentially harmful effects.

You might also see learning styles listed as a ‘neuromyth’, i.e. a neuroscientific myth. It’s joined the ranks of other myths such as ‘we only use 10% of our brain’, and that people are right- or left-brained.

Negative effects of learning styles

The worst part is, using learning styles could actually be negatively impacting your learners. It’s sad to think that well-meaning teachers are doing this, through lack of updated knowledge.

  • Leads teachers to focus less on evidence based strategies that actually work.

  • Categorising students incorrectly can bias them to believe they’re stronger or weaker at certain actvities that have no scientific basis.

  • Could lead to a ‘fixed’ mindset for students, if they believe their learning style is ‘fixed’ and can’t be changed - and so therefore shouldn’t try certain activities.

  • Unnecessary use of school budget to train teachers in learning styles method.

  • Schools use learning methods to sell to students, methods that don’t work and are potentially harmful.

  • Takes time away from teachers (i.e. planning time) and students (i.e. the opportunity costs of doing activities that could be more effective).

Why did learning styles become popular?

Most likely is that well-meaning educators looked at some scientific evidence and mis-interpreted the facts. As Howard-Jones argues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, “uniformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” [PDF link].

Essentially it’s an oversimplification of a complicated idea in neuroscience. So from these faulty assumptions and misinterpretations, ideas spread. Then if the idea of learning styles seems to check certain boxes (i.e. students learn differently, we should be learner-centred), add a decent dollop of confirmation bias (teachers make a change and seem to see an improvement) and there you have it… the spread of a false idea.

Why are learning styles still popular?

That’s a good question! Here are my best guesses:

  • They might actually improve your teaching.

    If you’re a new teacher and your classes lack variety, then incorporating learning styles will probably improve the range of activities you use. The extra learner engagement that this triggers will make it appear that learners are learning more effectively. Confirmation bias will ensure that this is ascribed to learning styles.

  • It sounds cool.

    As Coffield told the Guardian after he published one of his studies on learning styles;

“Low-cost and easily implemented classroom approaches can certainly cultivate wishfulness amongst educators, especially if they are fun and therefore likely to be well received by students.”

  • Jargon sells.

    Any smooth sounding scientific jargon that customers can readily understand is useful for selling classes, books and products.

  • There’s a delay between theory and practice.

    When any new results occur in scientific studies, it can take a while for news to spread to the practicioners (teachers). Although it has been several decades already, and some of us wish learning styles would hurry up and die.

Did I miss anything? Do you / did you teach using learning styles? Let me know with a comment below!

Further Reading

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.

Stahl, S. A. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. American Educator, 23(3), 1-5.

Kavale, K. A., Hirshoren, A., & Forness, S. R. (1998). Meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn model of learning-style preferences: A critique of what was Dunn. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 13 (2), 75-80.