The tenacious myth of preferred learning styles

We care about addressing ALL LEARNING STYLES (real or imagined)!
We care about addressing ALL LEARNING STYLES (real or imagined)!

Learning styles (the idea we each have a preferred style, such as visual or auditory, and that those should be catered to for effective learning) are a myth. This shouldn’t need to be said again. Other people have said it well. (You can skip below for a list of references.)

But it’s a tenacious, popular myth. I understand how attractive the idea is … when I was a neophyte graduate student in a TA training workshop, I remember the satisfaction of completing a learning styles inventory (like this: & this: & this: & I really need to stop because this is just irritating me …) and figuring out that I was a “kinaesthetic” learner. Of course! Of course, I was a science grad student, and this made sense! We do experiments! I learn by doing! (I didn’t think about the fact that I could probably have found a rationale for being a “visual” learner …) It was an easy way for me to think about my learning! And to justify why I didn’t perform so well in some courses … those ones were not tailored to my learning style! (Woe to those poor nasal learners … )

That was back in 1994.

Now there is ample evidence that teaching towards preferred learning styles does not seem to actually help people learn. Even trying to reliably categorize people into preferred learning styles is fraught with issues. Meanwhile, many teachers/professors and students waste time and energy on this, efforts they could be directing elsewhere. (Check out the book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel for a good overview of what we DO know about teaching/learning based on recent cognitive science research.)

I don’t know if this blog post will help change anyone’s mind. But it’s one more out there in case someone’s looking critically, and I can at least point that person to some sources – many are peer-reviewed. (Thanks to Kris Shaffer and Bud Talbot for the Twitter conversation that finally pushed me to post this!)

This doesn’t discount the need for thoughtfulness in choosing how we teach. While the idea of people having a single preferred learning style that should be taught to doesn’t appear to have merit, there are some things to keep in mind in our choices of teaching methods (and how we encourage students to learn/study). It is recommended that educators consider using methods to illustrate certain concepts in the most appropriate way (e.g., some things are best presented visually), and in cases where there are student accommodations relating to disabilities, there is often a clear need to find alternative ways of providing course materials/activities – see: Universial Designing for Learning – e.g., UDL Guidelines (These aspects are also discussed in some of the sources below.)

Suggested reading list:

Note – this isn’t an exhaustive list – there are SO MANY sources that describe the problems and issues with the idea of “preferred learning styles”. Most of the ones below were compiled when Tamara Kelly and I put together a workshop as “Science Education Mythbusters” presented at the Western Conference on Science Education back in 2011 (you can download the slides for that part of our session here, if you are interested). Tamara took the lead on that part of our session, BTW – the slides are mostly hers (though I am the Photoshop genius who created slide #2)!

Feel free to suggest other papers/posts in the comments!

Adams, W.K. and Wieman, C.E., 2011. Development and validation of instruments to measure learning of expert-like thinking. International Journal of Science Education. 33 (9): 1289 – 1312.
Aharonian, A. 2014. The Myth of Learning Styles. Skeptic.
Brown, P.C., Roediger H.L. III., & McDaniel, M.A. 2014. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Callahan, D. 2011.7 Resources Explaining The Learning Styles Myth
Curry, L. 1990. A critique on the research on learning styles. Educational Leadership. 48 (2): 50 – 55.
DeWitt, P. 2014. The Myth of Learning Styles. Education Week.
Evans C., and Cools, E. 2011. Applying styles research to educational practice. Learning and Individual Differences. 21 (3): 249 – 254.
Geller, L.M. 1979. Reliability of the learning style inventory. Psychological Reports. 44: 555 – 561.
Jarrett, C. 2015. All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes. Wired: Brain Watch.
Laurillard, D. 1979. The processes of student learning. Higher Education 8: 395 – 409.
Massa, L.J., and Mayer, R.E. 2005. Three obstacles to validating the Verbal-Imager Subtest of the Cognitive Styles Analysis. 39: 845 -848.
Massa, L.J., and Mayer, R.E. 2006. Testing the ATI hypothesis: should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive syle? Learning and Individual Differences. 16: 321 – 335.
Mathews, J. 2010. Some say learning styles are myth, others say they’re magic. Washington Post.
Mayer, R.E. 2009. Advances in applying the science of learning and instruction to education. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9 (3): i-ii.
Newstead, S. E. 1992. A study of two “quick-and-easy” methods of assessing individual differences in student learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology 62: 299 – 312.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer D., and Bjork, R. 2009. Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9 (3): 105 – 119.
Rayner, S. 2011. Researching style: epistemology, paradigm shifts and research interest groups. Learning and Individual Differences. 21 (3): 255 – 262.
Reynolds, M. 1997. Learning styles: a critique. Management Learning 28 (2): 115-133.
Riener, C., and Willingham, D. 2010. The Myth of Learning Styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (September/October), 32-35.
Thorndike, E. L. 1906. The principles of teaching based on psychology. New York: Seiler.
Willingham, D.T. 2005, Summer. Do visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic instruction? American Educator 29 (2): 31 – 35.

One thought on “The tenacious myth of preferred learning styles

  1. Tanya, I think you’re right that this concept needs rethinking. The teaching/ learning methods should be adjusted to the things that are being taught/ learned so that they would not only depict the issue but also somehow engage students in gaining knowledge. I’ve got an impression that there’s a common belief that most people are visuals and I can’t agree with it. I believe the methods should be mixed in order to bring better effects.

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