Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Learning styles – and other made-up stuff


Some years ago, when I worked in a university, I underwent training in teaching and learning to improve my lecturing skills. I have to say that I learnt a huge amount from this – and indeed went on to teach pedagogy to others – but the one thing that I found difficult to swallow was the emphasis that our teacher put on learning styles. She explained to us that everyone has a different ‘learning style’ – some were visual learners, some kinaesthetic learners and some auditory – and that to ensure that all students learnt well, we had to encourage learning in all different ways during our lectures. Now, at the time, I was teaching on an MSc course on Immunology. I had to give, for example, a 1 hour lecture on the molecular structure of a sub-microscopic protein that is found on the surface of one of the cells in the immune system. And while I did fantasise about trying to teach immunology through the medium of interpretive dance, in reality, it was pretty difficult to imagine how my students were going to learn the massive amount of detailed information they needed to pass their exams, by ‘experiencing’ it…

Teaching through interpretive dance (btw, this picture is REALLY funny if you’re an immunologist – honest)

Similarly the idea that my students would learn best by debating an issue just didn’t seem to make sense for a topic that required you to learn so much before you could possibly make credible arguments…

(OK, I promise, no more immunology jokes after this)

So, you can imagine my relief when years later I discovered that the whole concept of learning styles is pretty much nonsense! The visual/auditory/kinaesthetic model (or indeed the Honey and Mumford or any of the other popular models of learning styles) are not really backed up by any evidence. The different ‘styles’ are not reliable or valid constructs – so someone who is assessed as being one style one day can quite easily be assessed as another the next day. And, most importantly, teaching someone according to their ‘learning style’ makes no difference to how well they learn.

In fact, the truth is that how we learn something is far more related to what the topic is than who we are. To demonstrate this, try out the polls below.

As you can hopefully see, while there is some variation in how we prefer to learn a certain thing (for example, some prefer to learn history by reading, others by listening), the biggest relationship is with WHAT we are learning. So, practically nobody learns to drive by reading about it – just like practically nobody learns molecular immunology by dancing it!

Interestingly, many people continue to believe in learning styles because it makes intuitive sense to people; they like the idea that people have different learning styles and that is more important than the evidence. To quote Chris Mooney (with a hat-tip to this blog) “It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts”.

The funny thing about all this is that despite the dodgy science, I do agree with the overall conclusion of many learning styles advocates – that you need to make your teaching and training interesting and varied. Far too much teaching and training is boring – and it should not be! So I am a massive advocate of interactive, stimulating, exciting and even, sometimes, chaotic teaching/training sessions. I wholeheartedly approve of discussions, activities, drawing, role-playing, quizzes and yes, even (where it adds value) interpretive dance. I just don’t think we need to make up a silly non-scientific theory to justify it!

You’ll be pleased to hear that I am not the only one talking about this topic so if you are interested, please do check out these other blogs as well:

28 thoughts on “Learning styles – and other made-up stuff

  1. I’m not an immunologist thingy but I still found your jokes funny! I’m currently doing the core module of a PGCAP course (PG cert in Academic Practice) so your post really struck home for me. I’m very new to lecturing (journalism). The first year, I was mainly copying how I was lectured many decades ago. Now that I know some of the theory and literature, I’ll try anything in class – games, quizzes, discussions, poster design. I’ll need to engage further with the literature on interpretative dance though….
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. This kind of thing is rife in academia, where you might expect evidence-based practice to be established. I once underwent a Myers Briggs personality test as part of a “Transferable Skills” section of a MSc thanks to some misguided edict from the BBSRC who thought life science postgraduates need to be taught life skills as well as lab skills.

    Things got no better during my PhD and I have been forced to go to countless sessions where I have been asked spend an hour drawing a picture about “why I am afraid of public speaking”, when my only reason for being there was because attending some of these things are mandatory. Scientists do need to be able to function outside of the lab, but I think help should be available to those who want it and not forced upon everyone to satisfy some agenda that came out of a public engagement with science meeting.

  3. A lovely post. Now we just need to explain why such a pervasive myth has had such persistent impact. I’ll have a go. I’d hypothesize that a substantial part of it could be down to attribution — to devising explanations of why our teaching sometimes fails. By making it a learning style I make it an intrinsic — and therefore uncontrollable — personality trait/disposition of the learner, so it couldn’t possibly be my fault as the teacher. As with you, I like varied approaches to communicating, but until reading this I’d not considered the possibility that learning styles could be an insidiously acceptable way of blaming the learner. I really hope I’m wrong about this, but I’ve known a few teachers who might fit that pattern. And it ought to be testable using attribution theory type structures.

  4. Does the conclujsion extend from formal learming into any kind of absorbbtion of information? If so, does that have implications for communication in general? My job consists of imparting information, and we’re often told, for example, that people prefer graphics to text, or ortal briefings to written products. If people don’t actually have ‘learning styles’ then is this ‘heirarchy of desirable delivery methods’ just nonsense, or is is just that the type of information we’re delivering is the kind in which ‘hearing about it’ tends to go down better than ‘reading about it’?

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  6. @Aaron, there are definitely real sensory modality effects. Check out the “levels of processing effect” on Wikipedia for a start on this. Although it’s relatively old work, it is still influential. These effects are well-tested in cognitive psychology, but they aren’t different styles for each individual. Most of this is a straightforward theory that you more you get people to do stuff with a bit information, the more they are likely to remember it. Passivity is the enemy of recall, if you like. That’s why so many of the active teaching strategies are effective. The point is that they are effective for everyone that they engage, not just a few with the matching learning style.

  7. I am a cognitive psychologist who has written some articles accessible to non-psychologists abouton the myth of learning styles.
    I think part of the reason people continue to believe in learning styles is that many of the values that underlie learning styles are good and near universal. Most teachers (myself included) have a vague sense of egalitarianism, that all students are equal and have something to offer the classroom. I believe these to be true, but I don’t need to believe in learning styles to endorse these values. With learning styles, this gets translated into “these aren’t differences in ability, only differences in style.” It also taps into the feeling that students have great untapped cognitive resources. I also believe this to be true, but again, I don’t need learning styles to believe this. I have elaborated on these themes in the above article, but thanks for highlighting this myth, which I do believe wastes a lot of people’s time.

  8. Great post. I was “brain-washed” and bought the learning styles myth hook-line-and-sinker for too many years. Then I began to have my own doubts. Finally, I came across the research of Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at UVA. His articles and books are a must read for any educator. His first book Why Students Don’t Like School was probably the most significant book I’ve read in the field of education.

    Kristy, thanks for the great post.

  9. Oh dear… I’m feeling pretty shy, but I might be one to very politely incline towards a different view. I take it from your post and responses so far that learning styles are assumed to attach to personality (ie, not vary on external factors), but that is not how learning styles are best understood here in the Netherlands. As with your little test — note that your test is not really about styles but about means — I assume learning styles to be either individual or indeed collective preferences or inclinations in relation to specific task demands, which furthermore are dynamic (i.e., context-relevant). Jan Vermunt (now at Cambridge) has conducted extensive research on the topic at the University of Utrecht since the 1980s involving large numbers of students studying at the Dutch Open University — his focus was on distance learning needs. This work resulted in the ILS (inventory of learning styles), which was extensively tested, with all four subscales (meaning-directed, reproduction-directed, application-directed and undirected learning) confirmed to be valid and reliable.

    For an appraisal of it in relation to English language students, see (e.g.)

    I wouldn’t by any means claim to be an expert on the matter, but in my position as lecturer in clinical education I recently taught a master course on the professionalisation of teachers where with the 35 students (mostly experienced teachers themselves) we experimented with the teaching I did for them, taking the ILS as pre- and post-intervention measure. While our experimenting with teaching and learning were by no means by fixed design, the ILS results did show some change towards meaning-directed learning.

    In sum, my view of what learning styles are (and can do) are much less of a strong claim with respect to individuals. For me learning is necessarily a collective, that is social, achievement, which means that to my mind much cognitive psychology RCT research in this area is heavily reductive science and largely unwarranted. We now conduct series of small-scale participatory teaching experiments in a regional ‘thinking and learning skills’ project aimed at teachers talking with their classes about how to make learning more learnable, but unfortunately the ILS is proving a little unwieldy (100 questions) for the time being.

    Success with your blog!

  10. Having just jumped through the Learning Styles Hoops to support colleagues through a mock Ofsted inspection, I’m glad to find that I am not alone in thinking that the Emperor has no clothes.

  11. Pingback: Learning styles – and other made-up stuff | ADDIE Model |

  12. Great blog, Kirsty! I wonder what’s your take on psychometric tests (like DISC), MBTI, etc. They’re a rage in corporate India I think. Is there any scientific evidence to back them up? Would love to see a blog post on this topic. 🙂

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  15. Wonderful post, splendid blog. The “myth” of learning styles persists because it has been taught for so long and appears to have just enough validity to snare the unwary. This was already a matter of debate over forty years when I designed my first large scale training program. Because we had far more time and resources than we needed, I decided to test “learning style” theory by providing learning stations to satisfy each “style”. Learners proceeded at their own pace, selecting canned lectures, visually rich tutorials, aided hands-on practice, motion capture of another learner demonstrating each task, and so forth. Learners checked in at each station by placing a check mark next to their name on a roster at each station. Imagine my delight as I observed and later analyzed the data which convinced me (then and forever) that at least these learners roamed from style to style as they moved from station to station. One can only make an arguement for learner-specific styles or style stheory in general if one limits learner choices. Anecdotal experience is not evidence, but that early experience has freed me from devotion to “stylistic” design.

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  17. I have answered your vote and I have to say my answer for all of the questions was the same. To add to that I always felt that when I learned about learning styles in my pedagogy courses, I finally felt like learning and the world of education made sense. I do believe that we all learn the basic skills in at least one probably two learning styles. I also am sure that is what gets us to classes like yours after we exit the K-12 environment. We did a class experiment where I as a potential Social Studies teacher worked with a potential Math teacher to figure out how many chips we had and the ratio of those chips that were either green blue yellow or orange. We each got to add something to our mini project. In the end I had organized each color into some visually appealing and evenly spaced design and the other student had not touched them but had done a lot of writing. He looked at my end result and was amazed that I had turned Math into Art while he had turned Math into writing. It is small incidents like this that were consistent among our class projects. We in the end had learned more about ourselves as learners and it has been a tremendous help in studying. I am always excited to see these patterns play out in a classroom and see them often while grading or reading papers.

  18. I think we need to focus at the end results. Students do learn diffrently, so teachers need to teach in diffrent styles. I think that although we don’t need scientific evidence to back differentiated instructions, but we need to use it because it is make sense. As you said, we need to teach in a fun, entusiastic, and exiting ways to capture any student’s interest regalrdless of theories behind it.

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  26. Thanks for this interesting article. I’ve just written an article about learning and would be interested in hearing your thoughts…

    Learning – Keeping It Simple | Steve Says….

  27. Absolutely agree. My teacher training was a real eye-opener for me (having been in training for years and spouting the learning styles myths myself for far too long). However, it’s the lack of differentiation that gets to me the most. These days, the phrase that makes me want to explode is “that’s how people learn”!

    We all have preferences, sure, but learning is personal, situational and often not intentional. The only thing I would add to from the above is around making learning fun; that’s also a matter of preference. What you call exciting/interesting/fun could leave your neighbour really disengaged. Equally, “boring” training could just mean the delivery style is not to your preference.

    Personally, I am really digging the immunology jokes but whenever a trainer tells me “We’re all going to get up and moving around and having fun!” my eyes roll back in to my head and I can feel my brain pulling down the shutters. However, give me something to research or some complex equations to work out and I’m partying like its 1999 (on the inside, obviously)! But, once again, I would not claim to have a particular “style” of learning as I am perfectly capable of learning through discussion, experimentation, practice and lecture.

    So, my tips are….

    – “variety” – Have a lot of different tools in your kit, and combine them for maximum potential
    – “autonomy” – let the learner have a choice in how they learn – give them options
    – “challenge labelling” – once we start buying in to these “styles” they will become self-fulfilling prophecies and that’s when the excuses start. “I couldn’t possible learn history; I’m an active/kinaesthetic/bubblegum learner!”
    – “humility” – remember, it’s not about you and how good a trainer you are, and be prepared to abandon what you thought might work for what the learner is asking for

    It’s all about differentiation & not only in the delivery – think about the content and how we assess and structure the learning too.

    Disclaimer: Just some personal tips by a personal person with personal experience and personal opinion…… you can choose your own path

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