I first learned about learning styles as a graduate student. It wasn’t given much attention, but it made intuitive sense to me and so it stuck. Through my early career I would use the term “learning styles” when explaining how I was a learner-centered teacher meeting the needs of the students. Later I realized I was confusing learning styles with study skills. It wasn’t until I was a doctoral student that I learned that they were two different concepts and that “learning styles” was mostly fluff, one of the many buzzwords in education. The past decade has shown a lot of evidence that “learning styles” is more image than substance. Although some teachers still believe in it and I’ve heard a few sales representatives use learning styles to promote their English language teaching materials, the research does not support it. Kirshner (2017), writing in the scholarly journal Computers & Education, address the issue and attempts to put the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
The article starts with the author’s mission for busting myths in the field of education, including “the digital native” and “multitasking” along with learning styles. He starts out by describing the proposition of the learning styles myth.
- “A learner actually has a certain optimal learning style.”
- “She is aware of what that personal learning style is and/or there is a reliable and valid way to determine this style.”
- “Optimal learning and instruction entails first determining this learning style and then aligning instruction accordingly.”
Kirschner then describes the two ways of identifying these mythological learning styles: 1) the learner will tell you what they are, and 2) using any of a wide range of specific instruments to determine what type of learner the student is.
Why Are Learning Styles Fiction and Not Fact?
- They pigeon-hole learners (Coffield et al., 2004; Kirschner & van Merrienboer, 2013)
- Tests for learning styles lack validity, reliability, and predictive powers, often relying on self-reports which can vary widely and do not remain consistent (Stahl, 1999)
- There is no empirical evidence to justify assessing or incorporating learning styles into the classroom (Coffield et al., 2004; Pashler et al., 2009; Rohrer and Pashler, 2012; Rogowksy et al., 2015)
In fact, the bulk of this article provides many examples and details of how these tests lack validity, reliability, and predictive powers. This section includes many damning statements about learning styles, such as this one from Paschler et al. (2009): “[A]t present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general education practice. Thus, limited education resources would be better devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.” Furthermore, it has been known for decades that instruction that caters to learning styles is negatively correlated with learner performance (Clark, 1982).
- “The premise that there are learners with different learning styles and that they should receive instruction using different instructional methods that match those styles is not a “proven” fact, but rather a belief which is backed up by precious little, if any, scientific evidence.
- There are a lot of very fundamental problems regarding measuring learning styles.
- The theoretical basis for the assumed interactions between learning styles and instructional methods is very thin.
- Significant empirical evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis is almost non-existent.”
If this research bite did not sate you, then I urge you to read the succinct 6-page article for a more complete list of evidence (or lack thereof) in learning styles research. I strongly agree with the author’s final statements that it is the duty of researchers, journal editors, and reviewers not to propagate these myths.
What About the English Language Teaching Community?
I’d like to extend this duty to the English language teaching community. How many or what proportion of English language teachers believe the learning styles myth? As I mentioned in the introduction, I believed in it until I learned more about it. Can we assume that most of the believing teachers are in this category?
I am happy to say that I don’t see or hear learning styles being propagated much anymore. But for the sake of curiosity, I did a web search for “learning styles in ELT” and found references to the myth as late as 2012. The most surprising source I found among the top sites was from the British Council’s TeachingEnglish site at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/learning-styles. To give them the benefit of the doubt, it was published prior to 2012, but they could have at least taken the lesson plan offline.
Do you believe the learning styles myth is finally waning in popularity in ELT? If not, where do you see it? How can we help stop it? Is it worth our time to stop our colleagues from attempting to integrate the myth into their teaching approach? What about supervisors? Does anyone feel pressure to apply the myth to their teaching from their supervisors or from required teaching materials?
Clark, R. E. (1982). Antagonism between achievement and enjoyment in ATI studies. Educational Psychologist, 17(2), 92-101.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.
Kirschner, P.A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006
Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational psychologist, 48(3), 169-183.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of educational psychology, 107(1), 64.
Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence?. Online Submission, 46(7), 634-635.
Stahl, S. A. (1999). Different Strokes for Different Folks? A Critique of Learning Styles. American educator, 23(3), 27-31.