3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles

In, “Are ‘Learning Styles’ A Symptom of Education’s Ills?”, Anna North joins a long list of journalists, academics and researchers who are trying to dispel the myth that teaching according to student “learning styles” is a worthwhile effort. I’m referring to the concepts that originated in the 1970s, suggesting that each student has preferred “styles” of learning. One of the more popularized descriptions of learning styles is the VARK model: visual, auditory, reading-writing, and kinesthetic. This theory suggests that learners have a preference for one of these and that, designing lessons that accommodate such preferences, is more likely to improve each student’s learning.

This and similar approaches have been taught in teacher education programs and in-service teacher professional development for decades. In some schools, it is hard to find a P-12 teacher who doesn’t refer to the importance of learning styles. That is surprising given the limited research to support such claims, and the growing body of literature to suggest that designing lessons according to student learning styles or preferences does anything significant to improve student learning. Yet, the beliefs and practices persist. In fact, when I challenge the idea of using learning styles as a way of designing instruction, it is common to get passionate opposition, quickly turning to a flurry of anecdotal proofs from one’s classroom experience. I offer three responses to such opposition.

1. A Plea to Healthy Skepticism 

“Yes, please don’t believes this because I am saying it. I have not provided a single robust and empirical study to support my claim. Why not test my claims by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject? There is ample research to explore. Check it out directly and see what you think.”

The challenge is that using peer-reviewed research is uncommon among many in education, and methods of teaching classes in University education programs are often taken from textbooks and “how-to” resources. Look at a typical undergraduate education program, you will often find students reading secondary works about education far more than they are reviewing the scholarly research.

2. A Plea to Common Sense

Suppose I want to teach you how to play basketball. Is one student going to learn basketball better by watching slide shows for hours, while a different student will learn it better by playing basketball and getting coaching? Or, should I divide up my physical education class into four groups: having the reading-writing people just read books about basketball and writing essays, the visual learners just look through instructive photos about playing basketball, and the auditory learners send to another areas to listen to recorded audio lectures on playing basketball?

I realize that this argument has weaknesses. After all, ample research challenges our common sense or experiences. That is part of the fun of delving into the research. Regardless, I’ve found that this example often helps people become a bit more open to considering different claims about the effectiveness or lack thereof for using learning styles as a guide for designing instruction.

3. How Should we Prioritize?

A third response is that I step away from too strong of an attack against learning styles. Instead, I suggest that we simply prioritize the degree of importance we assign to many considerations for designing learning experiences. For example, I mention cognitive load theory, a body of research showing how we can minimize the chance of students experiencing overload when trying to grasp a new concept. I reference the value of taking into account prior student experiences and learning when designing learning experiences. I reference the importance of students having adequate attention to or focus upon that which is being learned. I talk about the research in support of deliberate practice. Or, I might also discuss the research on feedback loops and their impact on student learning. In other words, given all the research we have on what helps students learn, where should we prioritize the learning style claims?

There may well be research in the future to support more of the claims around learning styles as a guide for designing effective learning experiences, but I’ve yet to see a solid body of such literature. As such, it only makes sense to me that we focus our attention on those areas that are far more consistently supported.

What do you think? Have you been a learning styles champion in the past? To what extent are you open to challenging some of those assumptions and practices, or possibly lowering them on our list of strategies for designing high-impact learning experiences? Or, are you already one of the minority who never embraced learning styles or who has set them aside for more fertile teaching and learning ground?

Posted in blog, design thinking, education, instructional design

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

3 Replies to “3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles”

  1. Gina Fredenburgh

    Thank you for the guideposts! I’ve never been a proponent of learning “styles” – not a popular position among those in higher education who seem to have invested considerable time and energy in the belief that the approach leads to better learning.

    I do agree with other posters that mixing the modes of teaching and learning is generally a good idea. Doing this under the umbrella of the “learning styles” framework, however, perpetuates the impression that solid science is behind the approach.

    We could label a model-making exercise as “kinesthetic” in approach, but I suggest that it is much simpler to acknowledge that this is a practical application, more relevant than writing an APA-formatted essay. While the essay may be easier to assess for some (and quicker, too, given some of the automated grading programs and applications out there), I’d argue that it falls short of being a rewarding learning experience.

  2. Stephenie Hovland (@StephHovland)

    Good thoughts for any theory (I’m thinking of education and nutrition.) For me, I have found that keeping the learning styles in mind helps me teach a bit better. I would tend to lecture more than anything else, if I didn’t. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with learning styles for individual students as much as using variety in your teaching. That’s good for everyone. It helps with learning and engagement.

    • Kate Nonesuch

      Stephanie, that is exactly what I was going to say. Thinking about learning styles helps me use a variety of teaching styles. For example, I am a total klutz about making or building things with my hands, and normally would never make a model of anything complicated. But I have seen students who could not write a paragraph to explain the water cycle make a gorgeous working model that shows that they perfectly understand it.

      It was thinking about learning styles that prompted me to offer the model-making assignment rather than a text-based explanation.

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