Learning styles can mean lots of different things, and be interpreted many ways. The learning styles hypothesis discussed in this piece is that students learn better when information is presented in a particular mode, regardless of content or context. For example, a visual learner would learn information best when it is presented visually, as an image, a diagram, a graph, written text, or other artefact that emphasises or privileges visual interpretation. This hypothesis has been used to justify some very constraining practices in primary classrooms around the world.
First, let’s discriminate between learning preferences, which describe the preferences that individuals have for when, where, and how they learn, and learning styles, which imply that learning is easier/faster/more effective/stronger when information is delivered via a particular mode. Commonly, these modes are categorised as visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (VAK), though other modalities are sometimes suggested too.
Learning preferences can shift between different contexts, including the topic or domain of learning, the time of day, what options are available, whether or not we’ve just eaten, etc. We can think of lots of examples for this. Some people like to study with music on, while others find it distracting. Some people find they can be most productive in the morning, while others like to work in the afternoon, or at night. These really are personal preferences that don’t really affect the efficiency of learning so much as they affect concentration, interest, motivation, and other factors that variably affect learning. Often, people know what their preferences are, and make choices in line with these. I have no issue with this.
How could we test for learning styles?
I once had students design an experiment that they thought would validly and reliably test if learning by particular modes according to identified learning styles is effective. This was a good exercise in experimental design and methodology for the social sciences. They came up with the same design posited by Paschler et al (2008):
Determine the learning styles of a large sample of children. Test their knowledge on a subject. Randomly assign the children in each category of learning style to three class sets, each of which would be taught the subject solely in that learning mode. Then test the students’ knowledge again at the end of a sufficient period. If learning styles existed, students who were taught in their preferred learning mode would perform significantly better than students who were not taught in their preferred learning modes.
My students quickly realised that this experiment would be difficult to pass through an ethics committee!
There is no evidence that teaching instruction that has been tailored to students’ preferences for mode of delivery is more effective than teaching instruction that has not been tailored, controlling for most other factors. Reports such as the Coffield report (2004) and the Paschler paper (2008) summarise this research most accessibly.
How could we explain learning styles?
So far, no explanatory mechanism to support learning styles, which is consistent with our other understandings of the mind, brain, and learning, has been identified. We all have slightly different sensory and perceptual capacities, but these are not so significantly different between people. If they were, this would constitute a learning disability or disorder. As teachers we should be ethically required to differentiate learning experiences for any students in our classrooms with learning disabilities or disorders.
There are many factors that influence learning. Very few of these are related to mode, with some exceptions where either sensory or processing efficiency is consistently affected, such as a child who has a degree of deafness, or a child who has a recognised and diagnosed language processing problem. Current understandings from the fields of neurophysiology and cognitive psychology, derived by scientific inquiries, suggest that all people receive information using all their senses, all the time. What learners choose to attend to depends on individual goals and context.
But what if learning styles does exist?
…and you knew, through some form of valid and reliable diagnostic assessment, the dominant learning style of your students, what would you do as a teacher? Would you:
a) Tailor instructional delivery to the students based on their dominant learning style, effectively restricting students to a single mode of learning (even though this would not ensure effective learning because there are so many other factors at work)?
b) Tailor instructional delivery to students to develop their non-dominant learning styles, effectively restricting students to multiple modes of learning, in order to develop their capacity to learn from other modes, but not give them access to their most effective mode? or
c) Provide students with multiple opportunities to develop their knowledge and understanding through various modes, possibly also providing students with choices about how to learn where it is appropriate to do so?
If you answered a or b, I would ask you: why would you prevent students from accessing learning materials in other modes?
If you answered c, why do you need to know the learning styles of your students at all?
As teachers, our decisions about these will also be informed by the students in our class, who they are, what they already know and understand, what their particular needs and interests are, but it would not be necessary or even helpful to know if they are a ‘visual learner,’ and it would be downright unhelpful to limit learners’ access to particular modes on this basis.
It’s not helpful for learners to hold beliefs about one mode being superior to others
This is the central problem with diagnosing and informing individual students of a learning style. When a learner decides, or is told, that they learn best through a particular mode, they switch off from other modes. This effectively limits their learning. It is also, in some ways, a reasonable response to such a belief. If you believed there was only one way that you learned, what would you do? Sadly, I am sure I am not alone in being told by one of my students that “I am a visual learner, so I am not going to listen to you in class, and can someone provide me with notes, please.”
The best mode for learning often depends on what is to be learned
It is better that we select a mode for delivery that best suit the content or concept to be learned, the stage of learning, and the context for learning it, rather than on the learning style of any individual student. If we are teaching phonics to young children, for example, we might start teaching Foundation students the 44 sounds of the English language, one or two at a time, being sure to practice both listening for and producing those sounds, then move on to recognising them and reading them in increasingly complex contexts. (We would also be using sight words, simple texts, and other strategies to help them learn to read, and comprehend; code-breaking is not sufficient for literacy, and code-breaking using synthetic words is just plain silly!) If we are teaching those same young students simple numbers, we would (probably) want to observe and reproduce the shape of the numbers, as well as sets of objects that we could physically count.
But these are skills and capabilities, rather than declarative knowledge or conceptual understandings. What about those?
Knowledge and understandings are best constructed using representations and models in a variety of modes. Can you really understand the Mona Lisa without looking at a picture of her? I would say no. In this case, a picture is necessary! But can you understand her by only looking at a picture of her? I would say no, again. A text describing an analysis of the work will give you a better understanding, too. This text may be written, or it may be presented aurally or in a video. Similarly, can you deeply understand Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without listening to it? I would say no. Does it help you to understand it better when you learn about Mozart’s life through text (read or listened to or watched), and images too? I would say yes.
We should offer our students multiple, varied opportunities to explore what is to be learned
The best learning occurs when what is to be learned is explored multiple times, in varied modes. The evidence for learning according to our preferences indicates that this has no significant (in statistics, this means having a strong, almost certainly due to the independent variable) effect for students’ learning. However, the argument that learning about an idea in multiple ways, over time, is a strong one, and has plenty of evidence to back it up. It is a far better use of teachers’ time to design lessons that allow students to experience and learn about ideas in multiple, different ways, than to spend time diagnosing a learning style based on students’ preferences, then tailor lessons so they only access one particular style, regardless of the idea to be learned.
This, to me, is the useful aspect of the learning styles myth, but I don’t think that the learning styles hypothesis I’ve described is a necessary condition to realise it: we need many different to opportunities to practice, test, experience, and learn about ideas in order to gain a good understanding of them.
An important qualifier
This is not an argument against providing an environment or opportunities for student engagement in learning, where their preferences, interests, etc, might be considered when planning for and engaging students in learning.
My argument against learning styles is an argument against limiting the learning experiences of our students. It does not mean that I expect that all students learn the same information in the same way all the time, and I definitely do not see this as a reason to move toward didactic pedagogies in which we expect that learners can just be told what they need to learn. I very much believe that no teaching or learning strategy has a guaranteed outcome in all cases all of the time (or even most cases, most of the time). Teachers must be experts in pedagogy, and know, understand, and be practised at a wide range of strategies and approaches to teaching and learning. A teacher is in the best position to decide, in negotiation with students and their families where appropriate and possible, what approaches and strategies will be best for any given learning objective. I’m so passionate about this I’ve written an overly long five-post piece about it!
Am I wrong? In what way? Can you convince me otherwise?
If so, please comment!
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post 16 learning: a systematic and critical review. The Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.