March 13th, 2012

Challenging the Notion of Learning Styles


You should know that evidence supporting learning styles is being challenged. Find below the reference for a research article authored by a respected collection of educational researchers that disputes the fundamental assumption that students with a designated learning style (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, for example) learn more when the instructional methods match their style. Also referenced is a brief, nontechnical article authored by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham, who begin their piece with this nonequivocating statement, “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist.” (p. 33)

They do go on to point out that there are claims inherent in the notion of learning styles that are supported by the research. The learning style theorists do have this correct: “Learners are different from each other, these differences affect their performance, and teachers should take these differences into account.” (p. 33)

Riener and Willingham identify four areas of difference that exist between learners. First, learners vary in their ability to learn certain kinds of content. We may call this talent, ability, or intelligence, but we have all seen those students who master the material easily and others who struggle with it mightily. Second, and not entirely disconnected from the first, students have different interests. Some love music, others like to solve problems, and still others find their passion in sports. These interests motivate their involvement in and commitment to learning. Third, students bring to any learning task different kinds and levels of background knowledge, and what they bring influences their learning. If a student doesn’t bring basic math skills to a college calculus course, success in that course is highly unlikely. And finally, some students have specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, for example) that directly influence how they learn. Clearly, not all learners are the same.

However, proponents of learning styles go further. They believe that “learners have preferences about how to learn that are independent of both ability and content and have meaningful implications for their learning.” (p. 34) One learning style is not assumed to be better than others, but is rather preferred by the learner. “However, when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not.” (p. 34) So, what learning style proponents have long advocated—matching the mode of instruction to the preferred learning style—is not supported by research. The review of research articles identifies the problems with much of the research that has been used to support the need for teachers to accommodate learning style differences.

Riener and Willingham point out that the idea of learning styles is widely known among postsecondary teachers and students. They cite research showing that 90 percent of the students agreed that “people have their own learning style.” This belief can constrain learners—if a student thinks she’s a visual learner and the instructor is not supporting the presentation of material visually, then the student may think she can’t learn it.

Assessing students’ learning styles and not soliciting feedback on their background knowledge is a waste of time, according to Riener and Willingham. They conclude with what they call the “punch line”: “Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning.”

If you’d like to learn more, both of the articles referenced below are worth consulting.

References: Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Riener, C. and Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change, (September/October), 32-35.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 5.