Learning Styles are a Myth

I once believed in learning styles.

Early in high school, I took a learning styles aptitude test and of three defined learning styles – visual, auditory, and kinetic – my proclivity was more kinetic, followed closely by visual, and far behind was auditory.

As a typical teenage boy experimenting with his identity, this meant a lot. I now had another puzzle piece to explain who I was. I had reason for doing well in some classes and not doing well in other classes. It wasn’t because the teacher wasn’t teaching well enough, or that I wasn’t doing my scholarly due diligence. My ability, or inability, to learn certain content was innate in my being, like a gene. Everyone was free of blame.

After years of believing in my kinetic learning prowess, I have since discovered that there is no evidence to support it.  Learning styles are a myth!

In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork to evaluate the “enormous” literature on learning styles. They found “virtually no evidence” to support the concept.

Still, the myth has become very popular! This can be attributed to parents preferring to think their children’s education is customized, educators wanting to believe they are fulfilling their students’ unique needs, and everyone not wanting to think they are struggling. I submit learning styles are also popular because they help people define themselves. I often hear people describe their best learning style like it’s their zodiac. But like astrology, it’s based on nothing.

The debunking of learning styles doesn’t mean that education cannot be tailored to learners. Actually, the true nature of education is to present information in a manner that it can best be learned.

For example, no student could proficiently learn calculus by listening to a recording, as the auditory learning style would suggest. The best way to teach it would be to provide visuals students can watch and follow the processes. Conversely, stories (and storytelling) can be learned through listening. As for “kinetic learning,” learning by “doing” is commonplace. Everyone retains information better with practice, especially if the topic is especially relevant to the learner.

Next time you hear someone describe learning styles, you now know it isn’t true. Be careful breaking the news to anyone who may believe in them. Rather than deliver the facts in a pompous or indignant manner, reflect the compassion that learning styles imply. After all, learning styles are trying to help. Suggest that the education’s delivery imitate its real-world relevancy and add that education could or should allow self-pacing, so learners can take the appropriate time needed for them to understand the material.