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.

  • Michael McCarthy

    The research from Paschler questions the research behind matching instruction to style alone, and does not examine the idea of expanding instruction to address multiple modes of learning.

    The very compelling and extremely well done meta-analsysis of research from John Hattie (Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta analyses relating to achievement) on those factors most apt to improve teaching found a .41 effect size impact for innovations involving matching style of learning to help improve instruction. This was a higher effect size than what was found for the use of homework. This effect size also compares very favorably to:

    Teacher Subject Matter Knowledge (.09 Effect),
    Quality of Teaching (.44 Effect)
    Teacher student relationships (.72 Effect.)
    Teacher Professional Development (.62 Effect)
    Teaching Test Taking (.22 Effect)

    I would highly suggest that this research as another "point" of data in evaluating research from the field on what is most apt to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools. I would also suggest that there are few negative effects of giving teachers strategies for helping them expand their conception of how and why people learn. ,

    • Rebecca Pennington

      I wish the current policymakers would consider these effect sizes: Quality of Teachingi at .44 vs. Teacher student relationship at .72. Wow!

  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    Thank you once again for an informative and thoughtful post.

    You’ve made a very important point and one that I have thought about as an online educator: 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.

    I teach an entry-point class and one of the assessments students complete is a learning style inventory. Students that determine they are hands-on or kinesthetic often become frustrated if they then view the online classroom as being unable to meet their needs. They become very fixed on the assessment results and I have to work to show them how they can be adaptable and just as you’ve pointed on, we learn in many different ways.

    What is your opinion about this issue, based upon the research you’ve reviewed?
    Dr. J

  • Barbara

    Dr Weimer
    Great post! I am a fairly new educator and I was under the impression that we must teach to all learning styles which is very hard to do when there is limited time. I actually had not reviewed the research on questioning the necessity of this. I notice you have a PhD in Learning Styles. I wonder if you can comment a little more on your opinion.
    Thank you so much

    • DrRIngDIng

      I don't think Dr. Weimer has a PhD in Learning Styles. It's the website's organization of links to authors and topics.

  • DrRingDing

    Here are some more data points evaluating research:

    Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, & Robert Bjork (2008, December). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9(3), 106-116.

    The summary:

    "Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
    We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no ad-equate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number."

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  • W Mullen

    I appreciate reading a counter-argument to the theory of learning styles. Is it realistic to think that a student has a learning preference? To have a preference, one must have a cumulative experience of alternative options in which he finds a basis for forming a preference. For example, to say that I prefer drinking milk from grass-fed cows assumes that I have knowledge or experience of other kinds of milk. When it comes to learning, I wonder if many students have really thought through their learning experiences enough to even form some notion of preference.

    Perhaps what would be more helpful to the teacher is if learning preferences were couched in terms of learned learning styles. People perceive they learn best according to the manner in which they have been trained to learn. For example, Easterners have a different learning culture than Westerners. Therefore, teachers should consider such cultural differences when the different cultures are represented in their classroom.

    What I do find helpful in the debate is the shared vision of creating flexible classrooms. Teachers need to be flexible and adaptive, as do learners. Even if learning styles do not exist, differences most certainly do, and teachers need to contextualize their methods for the students under their instruction and learners need to be taught and encouraged to stretch beyond their learned learning styles, even if it means unlearning habits that may not be as effective as other habits.