Learning Styles vs. Universal Principles

The concept of learning styles has been around for decades, and there are many variations of it, but the most popular version was created in the early 1990’s by Neil Fleming.1 His VARK questionnaire sorts people into four different learning styles: “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic.”1 Perhaps you identify as one of these types. Personally, I self-identified as an auditory learner when I was taught about learning styles in middle school.

The idea is really popular. As recently as 2014, “more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it.”1 And it’s understandable why people like the idea of learning styles. It appeals to our sense of individuality, and it offers a clear way to improve education: teach to students’ learning styles and they’ll do better. Unfortunately, the ideas we like don’t always turn out to be true.

When a team of eminent researchers surveyed all the existing literature on learning styles in 2009, they found that most of the studies had terribly flawed study design, and the few that were well designed failed to show that learning styles mattered.2 More recent studies have also refuted the supposed power of learning styles. For example, one gave students the VARK questionnaire and then provided them with study strategies that matched their learning style.1 The results? Most didn’t change their study habits, and those who did didn’t show any improvement.1

Another recent study seemed to refute the very idea that learning styles exist at all. It “found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the ‘learning style’ meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.”1

So if teaching to students learning styles doesn’t help, and studying in ways that match your learning style doesn’t help, what does work?

One answer is matching the teaching style to the content itself. For example, even if you’re the most visual person in the world, you can’t learn to hear and speak Spanish correctly just by looking at it. Likewise, it’s pretty tough to make reading literature kinesthetic, and it’s impossible to learn tennis aurally. Some of the things we want to learn have to be presented in a particular way, regardless of the audience’s preferences.

Another answer is to do all the things – to teach and study via as many avenues as possible. We do have research that supports the idea that stronger memories are formed when you involve as many of your senses as possible.3 If you can see it, hear it, read it, say it, and do something with it, you’ll form a stronger memory.3 Touch, smell, and taste are harder to come by in the classroom (and downright dangerous in Chemistry class), but these can be included on occasion. And of all the senses, vision is the most powerful; we remember far more when images are included in teaching.3 It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the recent studies found that people who claim to be visual learners tend to do better on all types of tests.1 So even if you don’t think of yourself as a visual learner, you’d probably benefit from acting like one: Seek out images, draw diagrams, and picture things in your mind because it will help you form strong memories.

And that last bit gets to what I think is the best answer to our question: Apply universal principles. There are study techniques that we know work, like spaced repetition, self-testing, teaching it to someone else, and making written product.4 We know that classroom instruction needs to be engaging to hold kids’ attention.3 And homework needs to involve a better mix of massed practice and interleaving.

But while you’re waiting for the science of learning to make its way into the classroom, remember that you can proactively take learning into your own hands. If you find the lectures to be boring, you can ask questions to stay engaged or treat them as an opportunity to grow your focus muscle. If you’re not finding the instruction and the homework sufficient to understand and remember what you’re learning, you can choose to do whatever it takes to convince your brain to care. And if school isn’t forcing you to master the skills you need, you can choose to walk the mastery path yourself.

1 Khazan, Olga. “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2018.

2 “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say.” Association for Psychological Science. December 16, 2009.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

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