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Learning styles

“Learning styles” refer to a range of competing, contested theories that claim to account for differences in individuals’ learning. This includes the idea of “multiple intelligences.”

These theories propose that people can be classified according to their ‘style’ of learning, although the various theories present totally different views on how the styles should be defined.

This idea became popular in the 1970s, and has greatly influenced education despite the criticism that the idea has received from researchers. Proponents recommend that teachers assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student’s learning style. However, there is simply no evidence that learning styles are real, or that identifying a student’s learning style produces better outcomes.

There are substantial criticisms of learning-styles approaches from scientists who have reviewed extensive bodies of research. A 2015 peer reviewed article concluded: “Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.”

Learning style theories have been criticized by many researchers. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for separating out students based on learning style. According to Susan Greenfield the practice is “nonsense” from a neuroscientific point of view: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.”[45]

Many educational psychologists have shown that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds.[46][47] According to professor of education Steven Stahl, there has been an “utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.”[48]

Professor of education Guy Claxton has questioned the extent that learning styles such as VARK are helpful, particularly as they can have a tendency to label children and therefore restrict learning.[49] Similarly, psychologist Kris Vasquez pointed out a number of problems with learning styles, including the lack of empirical evidence, but also her more serious concern that the use of learning styles in the classroom could lead students to develop self-limiting implicit theories about themselves that could become self-fulfilling prophecies that are harmful, rather than beneficial, to the goal of serving student diversity.[6]

Psychologists Scott LilienfeldBarry Beyerstein, and colleagues listed as one of the “50 great myths of popular psychology” the idea that “students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles”, and they summarized some relevant reasons not to believe this “myth”.[18]

Adapted from  “Learning styles.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Sep. 2017

Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?

Daniel T. Willingham writes:

Question: What does cognitive science tell us about the existence of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and the best way to teach them?

The idea that people may differ in their ability to learn new material depending on its modality—that is, whether the child hears it, sees it, or touches it—has been tested for over 100 years. And the idea that these differences might prove useful in the classroom has been around for at least 40 years.

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality.

All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality …the different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another. Our minds have these different types of representations for a reason: Different representations are more or less effective for storing different types of information.

Visual representations, for example, are poor for storing meaning because they are often consistent with more than one interpretation: A static image of a car driving on a snowy hill could just as well depict a car struggling up the hill or slipping backwards down the hill. And some concepts do not lend themselves well to pictures: How would one depict “genius” or “democracy” in a picture?

But aren’t some students “visual learners” or “kinesthetic learners”? In a word, “no.” This is one of the greatest urban myths of education. Peer-reviewed science does not support this claim. Daniel T. Willingham writes:

“Because the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory, it is not surprising that researchers have found very little support for the idea that offering instruction in a child’s best modality will have a positive effect on his learning.”

“A few studies show a positive effect of accounting for students’ best modality, but many studies show no effect…. Kavale and Forness analyzed 39 studies using a technique called meta-analysis, which allows the combination of data from different studies. By combining many studies into a single statistical analysis, the researchers have greater power to detect a small effect, if one exists.”

“Kavale and Forness’s meta-analysis provides substantial evidence that tailoring instruction to students’ modality is not effective; across these many well-designed studies, such tailoring had no educational effect. … we can say that the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence. If there was an effect of any consequence, it is extremely likely that we would know it by now.”

– See more at: http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2005/ask-cognitive-scientist

Do students really have different “learning styles”?

By Howard Gardner

It’s been 30 years since I developed the notion of “multiple intelligences.” I have been gratified by the interest shown in this idea and the ways it’s been used in schools, museums, and businesses around the world. But one unanticipated consequence has driven me to distraction—and that’s the tendency of many people, including persons whom I cherish, to credit me with the notion of ‘learning styles’ or to collapse ‘multiple intelligences’ with ‘learning styles.’ It’s high time to relieve my pain and to set the record straight.

Problem #1. The notion of “learning styles”’ is itself not coherent. Those who use this term do not define the criteria for a style, nor where styles come from, how they are recognized/assessed/exploited. Say that Johnny is said to have a learning style that is ‘impulsive.” Does that mean that Johnny is “‘impulsive” about everything? How do we know this? What does this imply about teaching—should we teach “impulsively,” or should we compensate by “teaching reflectively?” What of a learning style that is “right-brained” or visual or tactile? Same issues apply.

Problem #2. When researchers have tried to identify learning styles, teach consistently with those styles, and examine outcomes, there is not persuasive evidence that the learning style analysis produces more effective outcomes than a “one size fits all approach.”

Sometimes people speak about a “visual” learner or an “auditory” learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent. Both spatial information and reading occur with the eyes, but they make use of entirely different cognitive faculties. Similarly, both music and speaking activate the ears, but again these are entirely different cognitive faculties. Recognizing this fact, the concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain—via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.

These distinctions are consequential. My goal here is not to give a psychology or a physiology or a physics lesson but rather to make sure that we do not fool ourselves and, as important, that we do not short change our children. If people want to talk about ‘an impulsive style’ or ‘a visual learner,’ that’s their prerogative. But they should recognize that these labels may be unhelpful, at best, and ill-conceived at worst.

The Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2013
Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’


Related resources

Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’

All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes

Willingham, Daniel T.; Hughes, Elizabeth M.; Dobolyi, David G. (July 2015). “The scientific status of learning styles theories” “The scientific status of learning styles theories”. Teaching of Psychology. 42 (3): 266–271. doi:10.1177/0098628315589505.

Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork

Learning Styles: Neuromyth Debunked, Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER)

Are You a Visual or an Auditory Learner? It Doesn’t Matter. By Daniel T. Willingham


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