You may have taken the quiz as a child: What type of learner are you? You’d answer questions such as, “When you see the word cat, are you more likely to a) picture a cat in your head, b) say the word ‘cat’ to yourself, or c) imagine yourself physically petting a cat?” Once you made your selections, your so-called learning style would be revealed. Congrats! You’re a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner!
Photo: Hill Street Studios (Getty Images)
You’d carry that label wherever you’d go. Teachers would build entire lessons around those labels. Maybe they’d divide the class into groups – one would learn about the planets by looking at slides, while another would listen to a song, while another would hold balls of different sizes. The idea was that teaching students in their prescribed learning style would help them learn. It’s a belief that’s still going strong today.
The bad news is, there’s hardly any real evidence to support the concept of learning styles, and a lot of research showing it to be one big myth. For many of us, that’s a tough notion to grasp – we feel like we’ve learned more if we’ve done so in the style we identify with, even when study after study after study after study finds that we don’t.
The latest investigation comes from a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine, Polly Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin, who had hundreds of students take The VARK Questionnaire, one of the most well-known online learning style surveys.
Once the participants determined what type of learner they were, they were asked to use the given study practices that matched those styles (for instance, one visual learning strategy would be to redraw the pages of your notes from memory). Husmann and Dean discovered that not only did most students fail to study in ways that matched with their supposed learning styles, those who did performed no better academically. “Thus, the adage of ‘I can’t learn subject X because I am a visual learner’ should be put to rest once and for all,” the researchers concluded.
Students have different abilities – this is undisputed. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology who for years has argued that learning styles don’t exist, explains in a video that yes, it’s true some people have a better visual memory and others are better at learning auditory material. And yet, he says, “that fact isn’t really all that important for teachers.” Instead, the way they teach should be primarily guided by the concept at hand. “You’re not going to come up with an auditory presentation of the shape of Algeria,” Willingham says. “Everyone needs to see it.” We’re all able to think in words and we’re all able to think in visual images. What teachers and parents can do is help kids figure out when to use which skill.
But what can be wrong with focusing on learning styles if a kid likes being taught in a certain way, and might even gain some confidence from it? As Wired‘s Christian Jarrett points out from the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, the approach “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses” even though “students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them”. It can also give students a fixed mindset, squashing their potential to adapt to different ways of learning, which they will have to do throughout their lives.
Willingham tells me that the real harm in this whole gospel of learning styles is “clearly opportunity costs”. He believes that because there’s no scientific basis, it’s simply “time and energy that won’t pay off and that could be devoted to improving lesson plans in other ways”. Here’s how we can move beyond learning styles and into actual learning.
Teach Kids Through Evidence-Based Practices
Luckily, there are all kinds of teaching approaches that are supported by science. We know that people learn best by teaching others. Hands-on activities can help concepts stick. Analogies can really help deep principles sink in. It’s a good idea to have kids reflect on their thinking processes (“How did you come up with this conclusion?”). And to assess their learning, ask them to retrieve information using only their memories at first – no textbooks, notes or Google allowed. Also, movement breaks can benefit everyone.
If a kid is struggling with learning school material, it's tough to know how to help. Parents try to offer guidance, saying, 'Make flashcards,' 'Listen to some classical music,' or 'Ask Google.' What might make the biggest impact, though, is to have them change roles.Read more
Build Lessons Around the Material, Not the Learning Style
Instead of teaching to learning styles, create lessons by asking, “How can I best help students grasp the meaning of the material?” That means if you want kids to understand what a French accent sounds like, you’d have them listen to a recording. If you’re trying to have them understand maps, you’d give them an actual map and have the practise getting from Point A to B.
Give Kids a Toolbox of Ways to Think
Teach material in different ways. Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (he’s quick to assert that “multiple intelligences” is different from learning styles), believes in “pluralising” teaching. He writes in The Washington Post that “in presenting materials in various ways, you convey what it means to understand something well”. When you give students a toolbox of ways to think, they can draw from it in any educational situation.
With very young children whose brains are still developing, Dr Husmann, the co-author of the recent study, encourages parents to expose their children to as many different people, situations, subjects, and ways of learning as they can. “Most recent research shows that the more you try different methods of learning, the better you will get at them,” she tells me.
Do Acknowledge Differences Among Kids
Saying that we shouldn’t teach to learning styles does not mean there should be a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. All kids are different, and teachers and parents should be attuned to these differences. You should know that extroverts and introverts process information differently, and that novices learn better from studying examples, while those with more expertise learn better by solving problems themselves. With learning styles, though, we currently have no scientific reason to teach to them. And as Willingham writes, “Doesn’t it make sense to use theories that scientists are pretty sure are right?”