The concept of “learning styles” has been overwhelmingly embraced by educators in the U.S. and worldwide. Studies show that an estimated 89% of teachers believe in matching instruction to a student’s preferred learning style (Newton & Salvi, 2020). That’s a problem—because research tells us that this approach doesn’t work to improve learning.
What Do We Mean by “Learning Styles”?
It’s true that people have fairly stable strengths and weaknesses in their cognitive abilities, such as processing language or visual-spatial stimuli. People can also have preferences in the way they receive information—Joan may prefer to read an article while Jay may rather listen to a lecture.
The “learning styles” theory makes a big leap, suggesting that students will learn better if they are taught in a manner that conforms to their preferences. More than 70 different systems have been developed that use student questionnaires/self-reports to categorize their supposed learning preferences.
VARK Learning Styles
One of the most popular learning styles inventories used in schools is the VARK system (Cuevas, 2015). Students answer 25 multiple-choice questions that range from how they like their teachers to teach (discussions and guest speakers, textbooks and handouts, field trips and labs, or charts and diagrams) to how they would give directions to a neighbor’s house (draw a map, write out directions, say them aloud, or walk with the person) (VARK Learn Limited, 2021). Based on their responses, the system classifies them as Visual, Auditory, Read-write, and/or Kinesthetic learners and recommends specific learning strategies.
If only it were that simple. While this brief survey may provide some insights for teachers, we must be wary of overestimating the value of the results. By placing students in categories that reflect “preferred learning styles,” we run the risk of oversimplifying the complex nature of teaching and learning to the detriment of our students.
What Does the Science Say?
Study after study has shown that matching instructional mode to a student’s supposedly identified “learning style” does not produce better learning outcomes. In fact, a student’s “learning style” may not even predict the way they prefer to be taught or the way they actually choose to study on their own (Newton & Salvi, 2020).
Simply put, students’ learning preferences as identified via questionnaires do not predict the singular, best way to teach them. A single student may learn best with one approach in one subject and a different one in another. The best approach for them may even vary day-to-day. Most likely, students are best served when a variety of strategies are employed in a lesson.
As appealing as a framework like VARK is—relatively easy to conceptualize and quick to assess—everyone engages in different modes of learning in various ways. The brain processes information in very complex and nuanced ways that can’t be so simply generalized.
Fads are common in education. Having been embraced for several decades, though, “learning styles” has moved beyond fad to what experts refer to as “neuromyth,” one of many “commonly accepted, erroneous beliefs based on misunderstandings of neuroscience that contribute to pseudoscientific practice within education (Ruhaak & Cook, 2018). In fact, the idea that “students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles” earned a spot in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Beyerstein, 2009), alongside “Extrasensory perception is a well-established scientific phenomenon” and “Our handwriting reveals our personality traits.”
Unfortunately, the myth has become so prevalent that the majority of papers written about learning styles are based on the assumption that matching teaching style to learning style is desirable (Newton, 2015). It’s no surprise, then, that well-intentioned educators (and parents and caregivers) buy into the concept as well.
What Harm Does It Do?
When a student is pigeonholed as a particular “type” of learner, and their lessons are all prepared with that in mind, they could be missing out on other learning opportunities with a better chance of success.
Adapting instruction to individual students’ “learning styles” is no small task—and teachers who attempt to do so are clearly motivated to find the best way to help their students. They could put their time to better use, though.
Better Learning Style Approaches
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an evidence-driven framework for improving and optimizing learning for all students. When a learning opportunity provides for 1) multiple means of engagement, 2) multiple means of representation, and 3) multiple means of action and expression, different styles of learning are accounted for at the outset, reducing the need to personalize every activity. Nonprofit CAST.org, where KU Special Education Professor Jamie Basham is Senior Director for Learning & Innovation, offers free UDL Guidelines, with detailed information on how to optimize learning for all your students.
Operating within a UDL framework, teachers should use Evidence-based Practices (EBPs)—specific teaching techniques and interventions that have sufficient published, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate their effectiveness in addressing specific issues with particular populations of students. (We discussed EBPs for autism spectrum disorder in a previous blog.) In addition, the Council for Exceptional Children recommends a core set of High Leverage Practices –basic, foundational practices that every special education teacher should know and perform fluently.
Evidence-based Learning Style Approaches at KU Special Education
Faculty in the University of Kansas Department of Special Education are world-renowned for their research in UDL and evidence-based special education practices. Students can be assured that our online master’s degrees and graduate certificates focus on research-based teaching and assessment methods—just one of the reasons we’ve been rated the #1 Best Online Master’s Degree in Special Education by U.S. News & World Report for two years in a row.1
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved March 4, 2021 from udlguidelines.cast.org.
Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory & Research in Education. 13(3), 308–333. doi.org/10.1177/1477878515606621
Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, J., Rucio, J., & Beyerstein, B. (2009) 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1405131117
Newton, P. M. (2015). The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1908. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908
Newton, P. M. & Salvi, A. (2020). How common is belief in the learning styles neuromyth, and does it matter? A pragmatic systematic review. Frontiers in Education, 5(602451), 1-14. doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.602451
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119. doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x
Ruhaak, A. E., & Cook, B. G. (2018). The prevalence of educational neuromythings among pre-service special education teachers. Mind, Brain, and Education. 12(3) 155-161. doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12181
1 Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-education-schools/university-of-kansas-06075
2 Retrieved on May 13, 2021, from usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-education-schools/edu-rankings