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The myth of learning styles

April 11, 2013

Three children doing group work together. Credit: Anthea Sieveking/ Wellcome Images

Before becoming a writer, I spent a year-and-a-half training as a science teacher and then working at a secondary school in Croydon. During my short stint in education, the biggest buzzword was “differentiation.” We were told that any given class contains pupils with a range of abilities, and that different children have different learning styles.

This second idea was drilled into us over and over again. Some children are visual learners, who acquire and process information best through images; others are auditory learners, who learn best by listening; and yet others are kinaesthetic learners, who learn best by doing physical activities. To be effective teachers, we had to try to establish each child’s preferred learning style, so that we could tailor our teaching style and materials accordingly.

The idea of learning styles is based on the theory of multiple of intelligences, developed in the early 1980s by psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Gardner claimed to have identified 7 distinct types of intelligences (visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical), and that this “challenge[s] an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn from the same materials in the same way”.

Gardner has been expounding his theory, and pushing for educational reforms, ever since. He has been hugely successful: the learning styles approach became enshrined by educators, and was being promoted on the Department for Education website until as recently as 2007. Today, the concept is widely accepted, and is used in schools throughout the country.

It is, however, a myth.

There is no scientific evidence that children do indeed acquire information more effectively if it is presented to them in their preferred learning style. In fact, according to Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol, there is some evidence to the contrary. Speaking at a workshop about the impact of neuroscience on society at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience yesterday, he pointed out that some research actually suggests that children learn better when presented with information in a way that takes them out of their “comfort zone.”

Last year, Howard-Jones and his colleagues set out to investigate teachers’ general knowledge about neuroscience, and to determine the prevalence of myths and misconceptions about the brain in education. The researchers contacted 242 teachers in the UK and Holland, asking them to complete an online survey containing 32 statements about the brain, and to indicate whether each one was true or false.

They found that the concept of learning styles was the most prevalent misconception: 82% of the teachers in their sample believed that it is true, even though there’s no brain research to back it up, or classroom studies into the effectiveness, or otherwise, teaching tailored to pupils’ preferred learning style. The results also showed that belief in neuromyths was correlated positively with general knowledge about the brain – that is, the more general knowledge a teacher has the more likely they are to believe that myths and misconceptions about the brain are true.

This suggests that although teachers have a growing interest in neuroscience and how it might be applied to education, they have difficulty distinguishing between correct and incorrect information about the brain. This is concerning, because it means that schools are wasting time, money and effort to implement “brain-based” teaching methods based on misinformation about neuroscience.

Howard-Jones and his colleagues believe that the solution is to explicitly educate teachers about neuromyths and the lack of evidence for brain-based educational programs. They also urge researchers to explain clearly what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from their published studies, and to closely monitor media coverage of their work. Such collaborations would, they argue, reduce the prevalence of neuromyths, and prevent their continued proliferation in the classroom.

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43 Comments leave one →
  1. FelipeCC permalink
    April 11, 2013 3:58 pm

    This idea is not only prevalent in the classroom. Corporate training activities use it as well! I’ve even seen airline pilots training being designed with this idea in mind.

  2. April 11, 2013 4:33 pm

    Reblogged this on PbhPsych.

  3. amber permalink
    April 11, 2013 8:05 pm

    I don’t really believe this, simply from personal experience and how I learn and have watched children learn. Just because there isn’t scientific data to back it up, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    (- preschool teacher and college student at University of Washington school of education)

    • Don permalink
      October 9, 2013 11:44 pm

      There is not just an absence of evidence to support this myth, but good evidence that it is false.

  4. April 11, 2013 10:51 pm

    There are two flaws in your article:

    1) VAK learning styles and Gardner’s MI theory are actually two different learning theories. Gardner’s MI theory (which now has eight–not seven–intelligences) primarily states that the types of intelligence that is measured by IQ is not all encompassing. There are other types of intelligence that IQ does not measure. Daniel Goleman’s work expounds on the Intrapersonal & Interpersonal intelligence that Gardner identified (EQ) and has actually been linked to higher SAT scores. His latest book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, expounds on brain-based research in this regard. There is a large body of work that speaks to the importance of the other intelligences that Gardner has identified in their respective realms.

    2) The learning style “myth” evidence that’s largely quoted comes from Pashler, et. al.

    One thing that the Pashler, et.al. study did not evaluate, however, was variance between input vs. retrieval in learning styles. His learning theory analysis was based on the idea that learning styles should help teachers better INPUT information. In fact, the study even makes “a basic distinction between what we call the existence of study preferences and what we call the learning-styles hypothesis.” (p108) Even the researchers own conclusions state, “it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way vs. another.” (p116)

    However, in a meta-analysis of 34 studies involving the use of mnemonic strategies with students who have learning disabilities, the overall effect size was a very strong 1.62 (Mastropieri, Sweda, & Scrugs, 2000).

    To this end, learning styles should never have been used as a sole mode of *input* but by identifying a preferred mode of *recall*. Some recall the full concept better with a visual memory “filing preference”, some recall better with auditory mnemonics, still others with kinesthetic strategies. If a student is struggling, keying into learning style preferences will help the teacher identify mnemonics that may help that student recall the information more effectively.

    Thus, lesson design needs to encompass all modalities during *input*, but students need to be taught a variety of mnemonics–be they visual, auditory, or kinesthetic–as young as possible so that they can practice and apply those mnemonics during study and “file” knowledge in a way that they can re-access the knowledge quickly and efficiently at a later date.

    • June 20, 2013 10:36 pm

      beautifully explained. Could you please share the research you have quoted! Just want to read and learn from them.

  5. April 12, 2013 12:00 pm

    Re the 82% of the sampled teachers who believed the concept of learning styles to be “true”, I don’t agree that the statements they were asked to rate (as either True or False) necessarily imply a wholesale acceptance of Learning Styles theory.

    For example, in the cited study they were asked to rate “Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)”. It is quite plausible that the teachers who answered ‘True’ were simply considering the individual differences relating to general working preferences observed in the classroom, *not* stating a belief that all students fall into one of three distinct (VAK) categories.

  6. April 12, 2013 2:45 pm

    Reblogged this on lunatikscience and commented:
    For me, in my classroom, regardless of the evidence, using a variety of tasks, presenting the information in a variety of ways and getting students to process that information in a variety of ways, simply does help keep children interested and challenged. It is keeping them interested and challenged that helps drive their learning forward.

    However despite all the fuss made about differentiation through teacher training, INSET etc I do very little of it and my students seem to do very well regardless.

    As learning means they also need to be able to recall and reuse the information at a later stage, there needs to be repetition. That, I believe, is something that is supported very clearly by evidence from neuroscience.

  7. Jim permalink
    April 12, 2013 10:40 pm

    (1) Logical fallacy: because a piece of evidence supporting a conclusion is incorrect or unproven, the conclusion must also be incorrect. Wrong. The conclusion may no longer be guaranteed – but it is not necessarily wrong either. My favorite example: Flying allows you to travel between locations. I can fly. Therefore I was able to get home from work yesterday. I went to work yesterday, I got home, but I sure as hell can’t fly. Just because there is no information to prove this, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s not guranteed.

    (2) Your only argument trying to contradict learning styles, actually supports them. You mention that bringing a student out of his or her comfort zone helps him or her learn. If these ‘styles’ can be mapped comfort and discomfort zones, then they actually demonstrate this is true, and we merely have been using inaccurate mapping techniques.

  8. AzureD permalink
    April 13, 2013 11:30 am

    This article confuses what people are good at with how people are best able to learn. Two very different concepts. Which makes this article highly dubious to me. Gardner’s idea is basically that people can think in certain ways better and has little to do with how people learn.

  9. Rickard Carlsson permalink
    April 13, 2013 7:39 pm

    The whole idea that all people should learn in exactly the same way seems preposterous to me. We have personality differences in just about everything, why not in learning? Just watch to toddlers and see how one of them jumps right into something, while the other toddler will take his/her time and carefully study the situation/problem before trying a solution. When learning how to build with lego or riding a bike this is allowed and accepted. Yet, when 25 kids are put into a classroom they are all expected to learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same time and at the same pace.

    Anyone who has actually taken their time to sit down with a person and help them learn something firmly knows that there is no “one way” to learn something, and that different ways will work for different people. Good teachers are able to do this on an individual basis. After seeing students brake down and cry (due to joy) after having been shown a different way to understand a problem, a way that actually works for them in contrast to the conventional way, it is hard to accept the idea that there are no learning styles.

    I myself do not learn things in the conventional way and struggled a lot during the early years of school. But I had no problem learning things, in my own way, outside of school and I have not had any troubling learning things once at the university (I have a PhD) where I had the freedom to choose my own learning style.

    I do agree that there is a awful lot of mumbo-jumbo type of “find your learning style” and much of the variation is properly within-people rather than between. But only because there is a faulty theory (or poorly supported one) does not prove, or even suggest, that the idea that people learn in different ways is wrong in general.

    I agree that it is a problem in that teachers cannot relate to neuroscience research and decide what is important and established findings and what is not. However, as long as we have one branch that keep presenting information in a form that teachers find relevant and important for their work (e.g., Gardner, learning styles) , and the other branch present information that teachers do not understand how to incorporate into their teaching (i.e. mainstream cognitive neuroscience), then teachers will cling to the former, even if the evidence is much poorer.

  10. April 14, 2013 2:56 am

    Reblogged this on Tools for tutors.

  11. Tom Tuohy permalink
    April 14, 2013 5:14 am

    Nice article. I wrote about something similar a while back. http://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/working-in-higher-education/1382/learning-styles-in-the-classroom
    This however seems to be at odds with Sir Ken Robinson who challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

  12. April 14, 2013 8:37 pm

    I teach catalan to adults in Barcelona. According to my experience, every single student has a learning style, probably due to his/her experience as a student since childhood. Some of them easily memorise the language rules and remember them when they write or speak; other ones link the words by sound; other ones need to write the words or rules in order to remember them.

    Anyway, I think one of the duties of a teacher is help every single student discovering his/her best way to learn. That’s why offering different kinds of inputs is quite useful.

  13. Marjo Mitsutomi permalink
    April 15, 2013 1:22 pm

    I would rephrase the issue of teaching to different learning styles to that of experimenting with our own teaching styles. So many of us tend to get comfortable in our own preferred way of teaching and need to remember that our approach needs the refresh button on occasion.

  14. JCrew permalink
    April 16, 2013 1:04 am

    Jen above is correct that the style of learning wre have all been taught is more related to recall. In recall I’m extraordinary in visual. But just as extraordinary if someone speaks it my comprehension and recall is perplexing poor. Some of these studies might stem from graduate school original-thesis differentiation requirement.

  15. April 16, 2013 12:05 pm

    I wrote about this in conjunction with the left-brain and right-brain learning myths here:
    http://skeptikai.com/2012/01/19/left-brain-vs-right-brain-learning-styles/

  16. April 17, 2013 9:29 am

    how about the myth of the great teacher…. this article doesnt refer to the source of learning and whether he/she has the skill in creating an eager learning environment, a range of multi sensory methods for retention and the credibility to gain a connection with students.. much more to this than bashing a straight forward and highly logical method of learning “styles”

  17. Tania Questel permalink
    April 18, 2013 2:32 pm

    I am so over educational theorists who are “jack of all trades and master of none” which means that we take on theories from all sorts of disciplines, combine them, synthesize some new approach, and end up with hogwash.

  18. April 19, 2013 5:19 pm

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Well, actually there are learning styles who are older than the theory by Gardner, but they are, as you can read here again and again, a myth…

  19. April 21, 2013 6:41 am

    Whereas learning styles may be a myth the debate has certainly brought about a discussion about how children learn and as such has some benefit. One size does not fit all, we are not the same and we all have preferences (even if that is for the sandwich filling at lunch). The problem of learning styles comes about through a weakness of schools, that of labeling. Children are not boxes or products to be labelled and stacked.

    We do learn in different ways, those ways can change depending on age, experience, motivation and circumstances within our learning environment. I would argue we have learning needs. How we meet these needs determines how effective we are at learning. I have developed the concept of “LQ”, Learning Quotient. I see LQ as the way we interact with our learning environment in order to meet our learning needs. If we can recognise our learning needs, either through exploring learning styles and learning preferences or by being aware of how difficult/easy learning can be, then we can begin to adapt our environment to our needs. In short we apply or use our LQ.

    Teacher will struggle to make every learning experience available in three flavours, it is not natural. For example the best way to learn to swim is to do it, not read about it! I have a few theories of my own, mostly based on 30+ years of successful teaching. You can find a few on my blog or website. Here is a link to my views on the next step in the evolution of education (relevant to this article). http://4c3d.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/the-next-step-in-education-evolution-is/

    I have also published on the topic of understanding learning needs, focused at teachers (available through the website: http://www.ace-d.co.uk) and about to do the same for students, a book called “Surviving your education” where they are introduced to the concept of LQ.

    Any debate that results in improvements in teaching and learning has to be a good thing, we just need to stop labelling.

    Kev

  20. April 22, 2013 12:53 pm

    Here’s the latest research, from psychologists at UCSD:

    Learning Styles: Concept and Evidence. “Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them… [But] at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.”

    • May 10, 2013 4:39 pm

      @Mo – the UCSD link references the Pashler study. One thing that the Pashler, et.al. study did not evaluate, however, was variance between input vs. retrieval in learning styles. His learning theory analysis was based on the idea that learning styles should help teachers better INPUT information. In fact, the study even makes “a basic distinction between what we call the existence of study preferences and what we call the learning-styles hypothesis.” (p108) Even the researchers own conclusions state, “it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way vs. another.” (p116)

      However, in a meta-analysis of 34 studies involving the use of mnemonic strategies with students who have learning disabilities, the overall effect size was a very strong 1.62 (Mastropieri, Sweda, & Scrugs, 2000).

      To this end, learning styles should never have been used as a sole mode of *input* but by identifying a preferred mode of *recall*. Some recall the full concept better with a visual memory “filing preference”, some recall better with auditory mnemonics, still others with kinesthetic strategies. If a student is struggling, keying into learning style preferences will help the teacher identify mnemonics that may help that student recall the information more effectively.

      Thus, lesson design needs to encompass all modalities during *input*, but students need to be taught a variety of mnemonics–be they visual, auditory, or kinesthetic–as young as possible so that they can practice and apply those mnemonics during study and “file” knowledge in a way that they can re-access the knowledge quickly and efficiently at a later date.

  21. Jenny permalink
    May 21, 2013 7:46 am

    The basis for all of this should be the concept of meta-cognition – thinking about how you think. Gardner’s tools certainly assist with self understanding, just as it is important to have an understanding of your own personality. The problem lies with how these tools are used by teachers particularly the VAK which puts individuals into constricted boxes – we each possess various elements of each style which should be seen as a spectrum. Meta-cognition also concerns an understanding of the task at hand and this is where Learning styles and personality understanding can play a role. You need to identify the skills required for a specific task, relate this to your own learning strengths and be aware that you might need to use skills that you are not totally comfortable with

  22. ivorthorne permalink
    June 19, 2013 10:42 am

    Learning styles have little to no evidence to support them and behaviourist techniques have decades of basic and applied research showing their efficacy. Something is wrong when teachers finish their training with a favourable opinion of the learning styles hypothesis while remaining functionally illiterate when it comes to behaviorism.

  23. June 19, 2013 4:59 pm

    I’m not sure that vak learning styles is based on multiple intelligences. Why do you think that?

  24. July 17, 2013 12:51 am

    It is hard to categorize something as abstract as learning and there will always be people who do not fall into these categories. On the other hand it is important to be aware of these styles and combine different methods to see which one works the best for your students. We mentioned this topic in our last blog on “Hop to motivate your students”: http://blog.knowinger.com/2013/07/16/7-simple-tips-to-get-the-best-out-of-your-students/

  25. August 6, 2013 12:54 am

    The late New Zealand educational researcher, Graham Nuthall sums up the myth of learning styles with the analogy of food “We all have different food preferences, more so now than a generation ago when the variety of food available was much more limited. the fact that we all have different food preferences does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007, p. 34). The underlying learning processes, by which our brain acquire knowledge and skills are essentially the same for all children, so learning styles are about motivation and management (Nuthall, 2007).

  26. September 3, 2013 12:01 pm

    What Jen Lilenstein said each time.

    I am dismayed that people have blindly reposted content that is misinformed and fallacious.

    There is a general lack of understanding of knowledge acquisition and epistemology.

    Furthermore, If people *did* learn (and recall) in the same way, we would produce students with near identical grades and identical skills. Clearly that is not the case.

  27. Chris permalink
    September 26, 2013 8:37 pm

    Woh, slow down here. To anyone distinguishing between what is correct and incorrect about the brain be careful. These are early days for us all in researching and discovering what the brain can and can’t do.

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