Mind & Body

Learning Styles Don't Actually Exist

It's a pervasive idea: different students' brains are better suited to different styles of learning. So while one student might best comprehend a subject by hearing a lesson, another would get the most benefit from reading it on paper, and another still would learn it better by performing a hands-on demonstration. The idea of "learning styles" is so simple that it should be easy to prove with a scientific study, but decades of research has shown that it's just not true. And yet, students and teachers alike still believe it — and it's harming students' ability to learn.

A Load of VAK

While what we just described may be one of the most popular models of learning styles — known as VAK theory, for visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic — it's by no means the only one out there. A systematic review in 2004 found a whopping 71 different models ranging from personality-based ones like Myers-Briggs to models based on the way a person's brain is wired for learning. But all of them rely on a central idea known as the "meshing hypothesis": the idea that a given lesson's presentation should mesh with the student's learning style in order for it to be most effective.

But for decades, studies have shown that this isn't the case. As far back as 1970, education researcher Gene Glass wrote, "'There is no evidence for an interaction of curriculum treatments and personological variables.' I don't know of another statement that has been confirmed so many times by so many people." Not much has changed: In 2008, a review of the current research also found that there wasn't adequate evidence to back up the use of learning styles in education. Still, even in a study published last month that surveyed nearly 700 people, educators and otherwise, found that 90 percent of them believed that people learn better in their individual learning style.

The pervasiveness of this myth probably comes down to culture, according to researcher Catherine Scott. In a 2010 paper published in the Australian Journal of Education, she pointed out that Western cultures tend to hold an "entity" view of people, the idea that traits are fixed at birth, while Eastern cultures are more likely to hold a "process" view, where traits can be shaped by experience. That has big implications for the educational system. "When forming first impressions, the entity model perspective predisposes teachers to the decision that the child is 'one of those' on the basis of just one interaction or upon reading reports of the child's previous attainment or behaviour," she writes. If a student seems to grasp a hands-on lesson better than a reading assignment, a teacher with an entity view could easily peg them as a tactile learner — and the student may believe it about themselves from that day forward.

What's Really Going On

But hold on: You probably remember at least one lesson in school that was delivered in a way that was so easy to grasp, you probably still remember everything you learned that day. Maybe it was watching a reenactment of a famous naval battle, or setting the U.S. state names to music, or rearranging the Earth's landmasses into the ancient continent of Pangea. If that teacher wasn't teaching according to your learning style, what were they doing?

They were adjusting their teaching style to the subject, not the learner. Studies do show that all students benefit when a subject is taught with the appropriate style: math taught visually, for example, or language taught verbally. No matter how strongly a person believes they're an auditory learner, they're not going to learn geometry without seeing the shapes on the page.

That's not to say all students learn the same way. Everyone varies in their strengths, interests, and previous knowledge, and research shows that qualities like these have a big effect on how best to learn something. For example, there's evidence that beginners learn a subject best by studying examples while advanced students learn better by doing problems themselves.

But, as the research shows, spending time figuring out students' individual learning styles and educating teachers on how best to teach to those styles is the wrong way to go. Not only does it waste time that could be spent on more effective approaches, but it's also limiting: It assumes that only certain students will learn from certain lessons.

As the authors of that 2008 review concluded, "Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open for our students, our children, and ourselves. Toward that end, we think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody's learning."

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There are a lot more myths where this came from. To read more, check out "Great Myths of Education and Learning" by Jeffrey D. Holmes. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer July 12, 2019

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