Learning Styles: The Learning Myth That Will Not Die

Early in my graduate studies, I took “The College Classroom”, a semester-long course that was a mix of learning theory and teaching techniques. I had vaguely heard of Learning Styles before, but this was the first time I was formally taught about it. If I remember correctly, we even gave mini-lessons attempting to teach to different styles. I more or less accepted this as fact and I even had a sentence or two in my teaching statement about how I recognize students have different learning styles and try, when possible, to present important concepts in multiple ways.

The problem?

Learning Styles are a myth, and there is a large body of research confirming this.

What are Learning Styles?

The Learning Styles concept poses that individuals have preferred methods of receiving information, and they will learn material better if it is presented in their preferred modality rather than a non-preferred modality. There are a range of theories, but one of the more popular approaches is the VARK model (Fleming and Mills, 1992), itself an extension of the VAK model (Barbe et al. 1979). The VARK model uses a questionnaire to classify students as having Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, or Kinesthetic learning styles. The premise is that students will learn more effectively when information is presented in their designated learning style.

How do we know it doesn’t work?

The problem with the theory of learning styles is that it is completely unsupported by research. Imagine this simple experiment. I have a classroom where half the students are visual learners and half are aural learners. I teach topic A in a visual manner and topic B in an aural manner, and then I test all students on both topics. If the theory of learning styles was correct, for topic A we would expect the visual learners to have higher scores, and for topic B the aural learners should do better. After decades of research, there have been no experimental studies that have been able to demonstrate this. In 2008, Pashler et al. published a review of learning styles literature, searching specifically for any experimental evidence that instruction tailored to students’ learning styles improves learning outcomes.

“…at present, there is no adequate 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.”

(Pashler et al. 2008)

In other words, if there is no evidence that accounting for learning styles works, we should not be expending effort and resources on it. In the 10 years since the Pashler review, there have been more studies (e.g., Willingham et al. 2015; Husmann and O’Loughlin 2018), but none have shown experimental evidence supporting learning styles.

Why won’t the myth die?

This is the most interesting question. Even recently, I was chatting with a colleague who is a skilled teacher and he mentioned learning styles. I think a big part of it is that the idea of learning styles fits very well with the aim of student-centered instruction. We know that students are individuals, and the idea of adjusting instruction to the needs of individuals feels good. People also seem to enjoy being classified into categories by personality tests, whether it is “What style of learner are you?”, “What kind of leader are you”, or most importantly, “To which house of Hogwarts do you belong?”

Another interesting point is that most learners do indeed have an expressed preference regarding the method in which material is presented to them, and this preference is generally stable over time (Pashler et al. 2008). The catch is that there is no evidence that learning is improved by presenting information in the preferred manner.

How should I incorporate this information into my teaching?

By not accounting for learning styles when you teach! That said, the mode in which material is taught should be determined by the material. If you are teaching someone to ride a bike, they will need hands-on practice. If you are teaching students to identify birds by song, you should present audio recordings of the songs.

What about Dual Coding and the Multimedia Principle?

Sometimes the idea of learning styles is incorrectly conflated with dual coding or the multimedia principle. The multimedia principle (sometimes referred to as dual coding) states that:

“People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone”

(Mayer 2009)

This is the fundamental idea of the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer 2008) which is itself related to Cognitive Load Theory. The foundation of this theory is that the brain processes incoming information by simultaneously organizing images into a pictorial model and words (written or spoken) into a verbal model. I could (and hopefully will) write several entries on these topics, but I’ll just give them a quick mention here. The key distinctions between the multimedia principle and learning styles is that (1) all people learn more when information is presented as both words and pictures (rather than as words or pictures alone), not just individuals with a specific ‘learning style’, and (2) the multimedia principle is strongly supported by both learning theory and numerous empirical studies, in contrast to learning styles.


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