Busting the Learning Styles Myth

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.

  1. “A learner actually has a certain optimal learning style.”
  2. “She is aware of what that personal learning style is and/or there is a reliable and valid way to determine this style.”
  3. “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?

  1. They pigeon-hole learners (Coffield et al., 2004; Kirschner & van Merrienboer, 2013)
  2. 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)
  3. 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).

Kirschner’s Conclusions

  1. “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.
  2. There are a lot of very fundamental problems regarding measuring learning styles.
  3. The theoretical basis for the assumed interactions between learning styles and instructional methods is very thin.
  4. 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?

References

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.

Jeremy Slagoski on Twitter
Jeremy Slagoski
Jeremy is the curriculum coordinator at the Center for English as a Second Language at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He earned his PhD in Teaching & Learning (Foreign Language & ESL Education) at the University of Iowa. When not developing curriculum or working on research projects, he enjoys time with his family, cat, and music.

6 thoughts on “Busting the Learning Styles Myth”

  1. Here in Mexico, publishers still perpetuate the idea of learning styles to sell books and I sense that many teachers expect course books and teacher training seminars and courses to include work on it.

    A few years back, upon giving a somewhat thick pack of course reading materials to a group of teachers that were taking an in-service course which was essentially a short cut to a degree, I was confronted by a teacher who said he wasn’t going to do the reading because he was, in his words, ‘visual’.

    Needless to say, I had t hold my tongue, politely assert the importance of the course reading and I then spent twenty minutes suggesting some reading strategies to help get through the material efficiently.

    Cheers for the post and bibliography!

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your comments! I don’t think your situation is unique to Mexico. It’s not too long ago that I attended sessions by publishers using “learning styles” as one of their key selling points. It’s even a big marketing technique for some edtech companies, but I believe most of the major ones have moved away from that now. I would be interested to learn how the frequency of sessions in TESOL/IATEFL conferences has changed over the years regarding topics centered around “learning styles.”

      I was surprised to hear about that one teacher using “learning strategies” as an excuse to not do reading. That’s definitely not helping the students! I hope that teachers like these are in the minority.

  2. I agree that there seems to have been less focus on “learning styles” as a concept recently, but I wonder whether it has simply been replaced by other terms, like “digital natives as you mentioned, “multiple intelligences” etc.
    In any case, it seems to me that a good mix of different activity types is probably a good idea for any classroom, as it will help prevent boredom and encourage learners to use the language in a variety of ways. So, although ‘learnign styles’ in not based on any evidence, if it encourages teachers to plan a variety of activities, perhaps it isn’t/wasn’t a bad trend in ELT??

  3. Thanks for your input, Clare! There was another article I read last year that was trying to make the argument that multiple intelligences was evidence-based, distancing that theory from the learning styles debacle. It may have been written by Howard Gardner himself. I learned about multiple intelligences as a MA student and found it intuitively appealing, however I had more skeptical professors as a PhD student. I have also grown more skeptical about most learning theories. I’ll try to find that article, which EL Gazette or Russ Mayne (@ebefl) may have shared last year on Twitter.

  4. Oblivious of all this controversy I undertook some VAK surveys with my university EAP students last September. To my surprise, the results showed some fairly clear patterns. For example, one group had strong kinaesthetic preferences, and another on the contrary, rated very low on kinaesthetic questions. Throughout the year I adapted my teaching to fit these “learning styles”. I am not able to measure how this impacted on learning, but I can say that I got some clear feedback from the students that they enjoyed the activities tailored to their preferences, and conversely that they did not enjoy activities angled towards other styles. My point is, apart from the benefits to learning, perhaps there are other reasons not to abandon style-tailored teaching. Especially in private education there is a strong need to give the students what they explicitly prefer, and in any case, surely there are collateral benefits to education if students feel their needs are being met. Perhaps however we should call a spade a spade and not talk of “learning styles” but rather “learning preferences” or simply “preferences”.

    1. Hi James
      I think it is worth reading up on credible researchers on styles such as Robert J Sternberg and his associate Li Fang Zhang; a quick intro to their thinking can be found in a book review by Sternberg [https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/amerjpsyc.128.1.0115?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents] and a response to this book review by a syles critic Hal Pashler and a following short counter response to this by Sternberg.
      If you have trouble getting this reading let me know
      ta
      mura

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