You've probaby heard someone proclaim they are a certain type of learner.
"I'm an auditory learner."
"I'm a visual learner."
"I'm a reading and writing learner."
"I'm a kinesthetic learner."
Perhaps you identify yourself with one of these learning styles.
What if I told you that there is no conclusive evidence that you're best suited to a particular style of learning?
"Oh, silly Rumie writer, learning styles are common sense!"
Let's debunk the myth of learning styles and learn about alternative approaches to instruction.
What is the myth of learning styles?
The idea of learning styles is that individuals learn best when they process information in a particular way, so teachers should adapt lessons to the styles of their learners.
The most famous model of learning styles is the VARK model.
Visual: People with this learning style learn best by looking at things like diagrams, charts, and videos.
Auditory: These people learn best by listening to lectures or discussions.
Reading/Writing: You guessed it! These folks learn best by reading and writing.
Kinesthetic: Those with a kinesthetic learning style are said to learn best by doing hands-on activities and having real-world experiences.
The idea is appealing because people are different. We think that if we can adapt to their needs, the lessons will be more effective and learning will be maximized.
The evidence against learning styles
In 2004, a panel of scientists evaluated learning styles. They found 13 influential models of learning styles and tested their ability to measure and categorize individuals into particular learning styles.
They used the following four criteria to evaluate the methods used:
Internal consistency (the different learning styles are probably different from each other)
Test-restest reliability (individuals measure the same on repeated tests)
Construct validity (the questions used to categorize people measure what they claim to measure)
Predictive validity (teaching to the learning styles has a consistent and useful impact)
Their research found that there were no meaningful learning style models that could meet these criteria.
In 2008, professors at the University of California, San Diego, were commissioned to compile studies on the effectiveness of adapting instructional methods to learning styles.
The criteria used were that the studies show that instructional methods could consistently improve test scores for their alleged learning style at a higher rate than they could for other learning styles.
They found "that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-style assessments into general educational practice."
They have yet to be proven wrong.
What to do instead
So you may be wondering: if learning styles are a myth, how can we make the most effective lessons possible so that students can maximize their learning potential?
Some tips include:
If you see that a student is struggling, simplify the work. Once they have demonstrated mastery, increase the difficulty. This is known as instructional scaffolding, and research supports its efficacy.
Design instruction to suit the style of the material, not the learner. Use proven learning science recommendations for what you're teaching.
Use a variety of teaching methods that utilize more than one sense. For example, multimedia presentations that use both audio and visuals are proven to be more effective than just using one or the other.
Encourage active learning, which has students engage in activities and think critically about what they're doing and why they're doing it. This has proven to be beneficial for all students, not just students with a "kinesthetic learning style".
Encourage group work so students can learn from each other and master the material by teaching it to their peers. This social activity has proven very effective in helping make information stick.
You're a chemistry teacher who is teaching a lesson on how salt changes the freezing temperature of water. You want to provide the most engaging and effective lesson possible for all of your students.
You've narrowed down four approaches to the lesson:
A. Based on their learning styles, give some students a textbook chapter to read and other students a YouTube video that explains it.
B. Put the students in groups and have the students teach it to each other before they've learned it themselves.
C. Have the students conduct a hands-on experiment where the students see what freezes first: water with salt or water without salt. Have them explain the experiment.
D. Ask the students to tell you their learning styles. Use whichever learning style is represented by the most students to build your lesson plan.
Which approach is the best for active learning?
Don't forget: we all learn in a variety of ways and we don't have one learning style that puts us into a box. Always follow the science!
Now it's time to spread the word that learning styles are nothing but a myth!