Exploring Learning Styles: Fact or Fiction?

I recently took an online test to figure out what my learning style was. According to learning style theory, we all have a preferred bodily sense through which we learn information best. Some of us are visual learners, others auditory learners, and the rest of us kinaesthetic learners.

Based on the learning style concept, if you want to succeed at school then you should learn information according to your preferred learning style.

After years of teaching study skills, I thought it was probably time to take a learning style test. So I jumped online, found a test, and answered a long list of multiple-choice questions. And then I clicked submit, feeling quietly confident that the result would be ‘visual learner’.

But it wasn’t. I came up as a kinaesthetic learner.

“There must be some mistake with the algorithms”, I thought as I clicked the refresh button. But there was no mistake. Kinaesthetic learner it was.

This result threw me into mental turmoil. Let me explain why…

I’m a doodler. Ever since my first year of university, I’ve been pumping out drawings to capture information at lectures and workshops. If it wasn’t for thousands of crazy little pictures on hundreds of mind maps, I wouldn’t have completed degrees in Law and Psychology and a PhD.

I also love it when concepts are explained in comic style format. My brain screams, “Yes! I get this! This makes sense”.

So why in the world was this online test telling me that I learn best through doing? What was with that?

Did this mean mind mapping wasn’t for me? Did it mean it was time to lay my coloured pens to rest? Was it time to kick the explanatory comics to the kerb?

This got me thinking about learning styles. Was there anything to them? Any empirical research to support them?

So I started looking into learning styles with the help of Google Scholar. And here’s what I discovered…

Learning styles are an educational myth

I get it. It’s hard to swallow because we hear about learning styles all the time. Perhaps a teacher you respect and admire taught you about them. Maybe you had to fill in a questionnaire at school about your preferred learning style. There are entire conferences and hundreds of books dedicated to the topic.

But when information is so widespread like this we start to actually believe it

We start to think, “Oh, there must be something to this. Why would so many books be published on it otherwise?”. We start to collect evidence for how we are auditory or visual learners, which makes us believe in our preferred learning style even more.

But in actual fact, learning styles are a bit of a limp lettuce leaf when you look at the research. There is no evidence that changing the mode of presentation to suit a student’s learning style helps the student to learn better.

No one is disputing the fact that we all learn differently

We have different interests and different background knowledge. Understanding these kinds of differences when it comes to learning is critical. But it’s this whole business of figuring out our preferred bodily sense through which we take in information where we’ve lost our way.

Riener and Willingham put it like this:

“If I were to tell you “I want to teach you something. Would you rather learn it by seeing a slideshow, reading it as a text, hearing it as a podcast, or enacting it in a series of movements,” do you think you could answer without first asking what you were to learn – a dance, a piece of music, or an equation? While it may seem like a silly example, the claim of the learning styles approach is that one could make such a choice and improve one’s learning through that choice, regardless of the content”

Plus, let’s not forget that learning is a complex task. As Psychologist Phil Newton says:

“Think of learning about, well, anything – playing the guitar for example. You can’t do that without picking it up and playing it (Kinaesthetic), listening to your efforts as you do (Auditory), reading instructions about what to do (Reading) and looking at images of finger positions for chords and notes for the music (Visual) – the meaning of what is being learned is so much more complex than one or two of these four modalities.”

Simply put, you learn in multiple ways. So don’t limit yourself with a learning style label.

No learning styles? No problem!

Here’s what I recommend teachers and students focus their time and energy on instead of learning styles.

For students:

If you want to learn more effectively, you’re better off using effective study techniques, which have scientific backing. Strategies such as practice testing, taking effective notes, and explaining concepts to another person. These strategies have all been shown to help students retain information effectively.

For teachers:

Instead of asking, “Does the format of the content match the student’s preferred learning style?” think about the nature of the content you’re going to deliver. Regardless of whether it’s a video or a podcast, ask these questions:

Is this material going to be engaging and interesting for students?
Is this material suitable given the student’s level of knowledge?

In short, go for study strategies and engaging, relevant content (not learning styles).

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