Answer: It doesn’t matter!
Want to know why? Then read on …
The One-Minute Overview
Students don’t really learn better when receiving information in their preferred learning style. Not only is it misleading to encourage them to believe that they do, but it may impair their ability to learn if they think that they have a learning style in which they learn best. However, this does not mean that educators should not use a variety of approaches in their teaching and learning, because students learn best when encouraged to learn in a variety of different ways.
In short, if you’ve been using a variety of approaches to teaching and learning because you wanted to be inclusive and to do something for the visual learners, something for the auditory learners and something for the kinaesthetic learners then that’s great – there’s no problem with that. What the research is suggesting is that you shouldn’t try to get students to figure out what their preferred learning style is and then to suggest that they limit their learning to that style, because that’s not helpful and may be damaging. What is good pedagogy is to vary your approach to teaching and learning because everyone learns better when they learn in lots of different ways.
If you’d like a short and tweetable anti-learning styles quote to back this up, then let me suggest this one from Philip Newton’s 2015 paper ‘The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education’.
The existence of ‘Learning Styles’ is a ‘neuromyth’, and their use in all forms of education has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited
The Long Article
Let me introduce my nightmare learner to you. A scruffy-looking mature student, bearded and bespectacled, he’s been preparing to start his degree by learning about how he learns best, and he introduces himself to you as follows:
“Hi, my name is Rob, and I’ll be studying with you for the next three years. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the way I learn, so what I’ll need from you, my lecturer, is as follows. I’m an auditory learner, so I’ll need all my material from you in podcast form. I’m also left-brain dominant, so please don’t begin from the big picture and work down to the detail, as that will confuse me and I’ll never learn – I need it the other way around please. And please remember that left-brain learners need logic, rules, facts, sequence and structure in order to learn. Also, I’m an ISTJ according to Myers-Briggs, a Concrete-Sequential learner according to the Mind Styles Model, and a Theorist according to Honey and Mumford, so please bear that in mind when preparing my personalised learning materials. Lastly, and I don’t know how relevant this is, but my star sign is Taurus, so I am loyal and reliable, but can be stubborn and inflexible too. You know, I’m really looking forward to the next three years, and I know that if I’m presented with learning materials that are perfectly suited to my learning style I’ll be able to learn anything.”
This chap is clearly preposterous, and is profoundly confused about the nature of learning. I can say that because he’s me – or, at least a version of me, but one who has been taught that if learning is difficult and is taking too much effort then it’s probably because of a mismatch between the learning materials and one’s own learning style, not because it actually does take some degree of effort to learn new things.
Nevertheless, some things do genuinely impede learning. If someone is worried or anxious about something, if they are very hungry or very tired, if they’re in physical discomfort, if the content is too advanced, if they can’t hear what’s being said or see what’s being shown, or if they’re demotivated for whatever reason then they are not going to be able to learn well, if at all. But do we really want to say that someone will struggle to learn if they’re a kinaesthetic learner and have been given a podcast to listen to? Do we really want to handicap our students by telling them that learning is so specific and individual that they can only learn effectively in one way? Why not free our students by telling them that they all have these amazing brains which can and do learn in many, many different ways? Not only that, but that by embracing a wide range of different approaches to learning they will actually learn better.
Let’s look at the issue from another angle. Why don’t students learning to be doctors learn about phrenology or about the four humors? Why don’t biology students learn about the theory of maternal impression? Why don’t chemistry students learn about phlogiston or about the transmutation of base metals into gold? Why don’t physics students learn about caloric or the emitter theory of light? The simple answer to this question is because none of these ideas has any basis in fact. While they might be taught on course covering the history of science, they would no more be taught as scientific fact than would the geocentric model of the solar system. These are all theories which have been consigned to the scientific dustbin, and rightly so.
As far as education is concerned, we are not without our theories and ideas which we have consigned to the educational dustbin. Brain Gym is already in the dustbin, and has been for some time1, but another idea that should have been consigned to the dustbin of educational ideas is the notion of preferred learning styles. However, over 90% of UK teachers still believe the following statement to be true: ‘Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic).’2
Should we be using learning styles?
Broadly speaking, the idea behind learning styles is that students have a ‘preferred learning style’ and that students learn best if they are allowed to learn in their the preferred learning style. Some of the more popular learning style theories include VAK, which classifies students as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, and Honey and Mumford, which classifies learners as activists, theorists, pragmatists and reflectors.
In his 2004 book, ‘Teaching Today’, Geoff Petty makes the following very reasonable claim:
“There is strong research evidence that ‘multiple representations’ help learners, whatever the subject they are learning. There is much less evidence for the commonly held view that students learn better if they are taught mainly or exclusively in their preferred learning style.”3
A couple of years later, in 2006, in his book ‘Evidence Based Teaching’, Petty went further, and stated that:
“It is tempting to believe that people have different styles of learning and thinking, and many learning style and cognitive style theories have been proposed to try and capture these. Professor Frank Coffield and others conducted a very extensive and rigorous review of over 70 such theories … [and] they found remarkably little evidence for, and a great deal of evidence against, all but a handful of the theories they tested. Popular systems that fell down … were Honey and Mumford, Dunn and Dunn, and VAK.”4 5
Professor Coffield and his colleagues at Newcastle University produced two reports for the Learning & Skills Research Centre in 2004. One was entitled ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review’ and was a hefty 182 page report in which the literature on learning styles was reviewed and 13 of the most influential learning styles models were examined. The second report was entitled ‘Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice’ and was a shorter 84 page report which focused on the implications of learning styles for educators.
Peter Kingston, writing in the Guardian, summarised the findings as follows:
“The report, Should we be using learning styles?, by a team at Newcastle University, concludes that only a couple of the most popular test-your-learning-style kits on the market stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Many of them could be potentially damaging if they led to students being labelled as one sort of learner or other, says Frank Coffield, professor of education at Newcastle University, who headed the research on behalf of the Learning and Skills Development Agency.” 6
The 2004 reports by Coffield et al., appear to have generated a great deal of interest into the now widely discredited (but still widespread and financially lucrative) area of learning styles, and the evidence against learning styles has been steadily building ever since. For example, a 2008 paper by Pashler et al., published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest concluded that:
“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated”7
More recently, Sophie Guterl, writing in 2013 for Scientific American noted that:
“Some studies claimed to have demonstrated the effectiveness of teaching to learning styles, although they had small sample sizes, selectively reported data or were methodologically flawed. Those that were methodologically sound found no relationship between learning styles and performance on assessments.”8
And to bring things even more up-to-date, Philip Newton’s 2015 paper for the journal Frontiers in Psychology paper stated very clearly that:
“The existence of ‘Learning Styles’ is a common ‘neuromyth’, and their use in all forms of education has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited in the research literature. … Learning Styles do not work, yet the current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use. This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students.”9
Learning styles, it appears, are very much in the educational dustbin … it’s just a matter of time before it becomes widely known that that’s where they are. However, even though 93% of UK teachers believe in learning styles, that was still the lowest percentage of all the countries looked at in Howard-Jones’s 2014 paper ‘Neuromyths and Education’. So perhaps the message is slowly getting across in the UK after all.
The seminal reports about learning styles by Coffield et al., are, like all good pieces of academic work, subtle, nuanced, complex, detailed and resistant to clumsy, reductionist, bite-sized soundbites and simplistic conclusions. The reports themselves are no longer available from the LSRC’s website, but can be easily found in PDF format online (just enter the report title into any search engine). For those wanting more of an introduction and overview then Peter Kingston’s summary of the work, published is the Guardian under the title ‘Fashion Victims’, is an excellent place to start. And if you have a copy to hand, pages 30 to 40 of Geoff Petty’s ‘Evidence-Based Teaching’ are well worth a read. If you want to go directly to the originals, the shorter report ‘Should we be using learning styles?’ is the best one to start with, and the set of tables on pages 22 to 35 of the report summarise the pros and cons of the various systems reviewed, giving an overall assessment of each.
For educators, the most useful guidance on learning styles is probably that provided by Petty on page 30 of ‘Evidence-Based Teaching’, where he summarises the advice from Coffield et al., as follows:
1. Don’t type students and then match learning strategies to their styles; instead, use methods from all styles for everyone. This is called ‘whole brain’ learning.
2. Encourage learners to use unfamiliar styles, even if they don’t like them at first, and teach them how to use these.
Notes and References
1. Fortunately, Brain Gym never really made it into universities, but it was popular in schools for some time. Ben Goldacre did much to expose it as pseudoscience, and wrote about it in detail in the second chapter of his book, ‘Bad Science’, and in various Guardian articles dating back to his June 2003 article, ‘Work our your mind’. Goldacre’s 2008 article ‘Nonsense dressed up as neuroscience’ is a good primer on Brain Gym. James Randerson’s 2008 article ‘Experts dismiss educational claims of Brain Gym programme’ summarises the views on Brain Gym of several prominent scientific associations.
2. For more on this, see Paul Howard-Jones’s 2014 paper ‘Neuroscience and education: myths and messages’ or see Pete Etchells’s summary of Howard-Jones’s research: ‘Brain balony has no place in the classroom’.
3. Petty, G. (2004) Teaching Today, 3rd Edition. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes, pp.149-150.
4. Petty, G. (2006) Evidence Based Teaching. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes, p.30.
5. Coffield et al., (2004) provide a set of tables listing the pros and cons and a summary of each of the learning styles on pages 22 to 35 of their report, ‘Should we be using learning styles?’ The overall assessment on each of them makes for interesting reading. The best of systems is Allinson and Hayes’ Cognitive Styles Index (CSI), although Hermann’s Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) is also well reviewed.
6. Kingston, P. (2004) Fashion victims: Could tests to diagnose ‘learning styles’ do more harm than good. The Guardian, 4th May.
7. Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), pp.105-119.
8. Guterl, S. (2013) Is Teaching to a Student’s “Learning Style” a Bogus Idea? Scientific American, 20th September.
9. Newton (2015) The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 6 (December 2015).
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