The myth of “learning styles”

It says here that 90% of teachers believe two related claims:

  • There are four different learning styles — visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic.
  • Lessons need to address all four.

For several reasons I have long been skeptical of statements like the above. Here are a few of my reasons:

  • That “90%” figure looks too much like “four out of five dentists recommend….”
  • The separation into four different styles is just too neat to be plausible.
  • Why should lessons address all four anyway?
  • Some lessons are better taught by one approach rather than another.
  • People need to learn in all ways. Being catered to isn’t helpful.

So I was quite interested to see the essay that I linked in my first paragraph above. Admittedly I approached it with a grain of salt, since it comes from a commercial software publisher rather than a university. But skepticism does not call for initial rejection.

The author, Meg Ryan — sorry, I mean Meghan Ryan, different person — throws cold water on the “learning styles” approach:

[J]ust because a theory is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. The truth is, there’s no evidence that proves students learn more effectively when lessons are tailored to their unique learning styles.

Ryan demands evidence. So should we. (The current occupant of the White House is teaching us to be skeptical of claims that are offered without evidence.) Her principal evidence consists in linking to an academic meta-research article that reviews all the current research on the subject and concludes that “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” Constantly keeping in mind that Ryan’s essay may be tainted by being sponsored by Prezi — not that I have anything against Prezi, as I like it and use it, but it’s still not an objective source — I endorse the points made in this paragraph:

Even though there’s plenty of evidence that debunks the learning style myth, teachers should still use different mediums and strategies to reach their students. Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham encourages teachers to focus on the medium that best supports the content, rather than the medium that best reaches the student.




Categories: Teaching & Learning