The Persistence of Learning Styles

The number of research publications denouncing the theory of learning styles is steadily increasing. However, the theory persists in the educational field despite a lack of research proving its efficacy. This could be due to investment by many educational companies in products that rely on learning styles. Many people may feel personally attached to a certain learning style. Teachers have also found benefits in differentiating instructional techniques. Although there is little evidence for the effectiveness of teaching based on learning styles, many articles and books continue to be published on the topic. Following up from our 2021 blog The Myth of Learning Styles, we’ll take a look at what learning styles are and why they are flawed at best and detrimental at worst.

What are learning styles?

The learning styles theory was largely developed in the 1960s and became popular in the 1970s. It was an attempt to understand how everyone learns best. A common model (VAK) separates learning styles into visual, auditory (or aural) or kinesthetic. From this theory comes the “meshing hypothesis” which claims that people learn better when instruction matches their learning style.

Many models have been created based on the learning styles theory. Walter Burke Barbe first proposed the VAK model which evolved into perhaps the most popular learning styles model: VARK. This was developed by Neil Fleming in 1987. The VARK model attempts to identify learner’s preferences and categorize them into:

  • visual learners
  • auditory learners
  • reading and writing learners
  • kinesthetic learners

The model purports that everyone has a dominant preference. However, they might also include the other styles in their learning. Barbe even admitted that everyone would learn better using all three (or four in the VARK version) modalities in combination. The models based on learning styles remain popular because they are intuitive and lend themselves to the notion that everyone learns differently.

“People prefer brain-based accounts of behavior, and they like to categorize people into types. Learning styles allow people to do both of those things.” – Shaylene Nancekivell

The problem with learning styles

“For many adults, school was a frustrating experience where they did not learn as much as they could, and their sense of individual agency was negated. Learning styles theory represents a form of retrospective absolution where, if only their teachers had tailored instruction to match their learning style, then they could have achieved their potential.” – Carl Hendrick

The video below from Veritasium offers a great explanation of the attractiveness of the learning styles theory and why it has no evidence to back it up.

People do have preferences for how they learn. But several studies have demonstrated that catering to our preferences does not improve learning (see Resources below). In fact, putting ourselves into a learning style box may actually be detrimental to our learning. Learners might avoid certain strategies, or even entire subjects, based on their learning style label. In fact, your preferred style will change based on what you are learning. For example, it is easier to learn geography using a map (visual) than listening to a lecture (auditory). The method should fit the task.

What has been shown is that many people learn best when presented with information using a variety of media. We also know that pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone can be very beneficial. While learning styles perhaps pushed us to admit all learners are unique, we must now evolve beyond it and teach with evidence-based practices to truly help learners. Educators’ time, effort and money is better spent on instructional strategies that are strongly supported by research.

To learn more about why we’ve moved away from learning styles, check out the resources below.

Resources

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