Why Learning Styles Are a Myth (and How We Really Learn)

By BrainStation October 11, 2018

Last year, thirty eminent professors and doctors of psychology and neuroscience published an open letter in The Guardian declaring the concept of learning styles a ‘neuromyth.’

What these scientists were so bothered about is the theory that individual learners have a predominant style or modality through which they learn most effectively. This idea originates from a couple of different sources. One is psychologist David Kolb’s 1984 model of the experiential learning cycle, which categorizes learners into Assimilators, Accomodators, Divergers, or Convergers.

Another source is the VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading, Kinesthetic) questionnaire, created by school inspector Neil Fleming in the early ‘90s, which asks people how they prefer to receive information.

Whatever the point of origin, the concept of learning styles has become ingrained in popular culture. A 2013 study by the Wellcome Trust found that 76 percent of teachers in the UK used learning styles in their teaching. In 2014, another study claimed over 90% of teachers in five countries (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and China) believed individuals learn better when receiving information tailored to their preferred style.

Even the British Council and the BBC have bought in, urging teachers on the TeachingEnglish website to match their student’s learning styles, including being: right- or left-brained, analytic vs. dynamic, and visual vs. auditory.

What’s Wrong With Learning Styles?

In 2009, Harold Pashler and his team found there was “virtually no evidence for” learning styles. Surveying an enormous body of literature, Pashler’s team found that hardly any of it actually used sound experimental methodologies to test the theory; the few studies that did do so contradicted categorization into ‘learning styles.’

Pashler’s results were corroborated most recently in this study by Polly Hussman and her team. Hussman had over 400 anatomy students take the VARK questionnaire, then monitored the students’ study habits and course results. Most students’ study strategies did not match their professed ‘learning style,’ and even when the two aligned it didn’t correlate with higher course achievements. “Another nail in the coffin for learning styles?” asks the title of Hussman’s published findings.

Clearly, there are differences in aptitudes and abilities amongst learners. It’s also true that people express preferences for verbal or visual teaching methods, for example. But it turns out that these preferences are simply not predictive of people’s actual aptitudes. As David Kraemer’s team discovered, how people think they learn does not match how they actually learn.

According to a study published by British Journal of Psychology, students who claimed to be visual and verbal learners thought they would remember pictures and words better, but those preferences had no correlation to what they actually remembered best. The ‘learning style’ simply meant was that they liked words or pictures better.

To make matters worse, there is evidence that the myth of learning styles is actually causing harm, encouraging teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses,” as Scott Lilienfeld wrote in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology.

So, How Do People Learn?

Psychologist Daniel Willingham suggests that all kinds of learning should be promoted and practiced, so that students can strengthen an array of skills, then use whatever is most effective for the problem at hand. “It’s much better,” he says, “to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think.”

One way to do this, is to promote “active learning.”

In his book Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, author and professor Ralf St. Clair pulled together a number of theories to create what he calls a “highly coherent working model” on learning. St. Clair believes that:

  • Learning is a social process
  • People learn by trying peripheral activities, then, as they grow in confidence (and watch others), they take on more complex activities.
  • People repeat actions associated with a reward, including peer approval.
  • An associated behavioral outcome can make learning easier.
  • People learn best when faced with a need to understand something relevant to them.

Based on these ideas, St. Clair outlined three suggestions for teachers and students alike, including:

  • Allowing people to have some control over their own learning.
  • Building connections between the material and the experiences of learners, with increasing complexity.
  • Encouraging collaboration and feedback between learners.

These ideas are very much at the heart of BrainStation’s learning experience, which encourages a hands-on, project-based learning environment, emphasizing collaboration and outcomes-based skills development.

Creating this kind of experience for learners can be challenging, which may be why the concept of ‘learning styles’ took off in the first place. It, does, after all, have a certain attraction, as Willingham has written, as a “middle ground between treating every student the same way and treating every student uniquely.”

The truth, though, is that, in Willingham’s words, “learning styles theories have not panned out.”