The problem with learning styles

Learning styles theory proposes that educators use students’ learning style preferences to differentiate their teaching, and thus enhance learning. This theory is persistent and widespread, yet there is little evidence to support it and it has been thoroughly discredited. Although seemingly harmless, belief in preferred learning styles can negatively influence students’ choice of subject, and prevent educators from using more demonstrably effective theories to facilitate learning. Educators should differentiate teaching to suit the content and the diverse needs of the students, but not because of their preferred ‘learning styles.’


Written by sophie allsopp | PUBLISHED ON 25th november 2021 | Photo by Joshua Chun on Unsplash on Unsplash


The neuromyth of learning styles

Learning styles are widely used in higher education to explain the different preferences students have for how they learn. The theory suggests that by tailoring our teaching to fit students’ preferences, learning will be enhanced. When I started my PGCert in Creative Education, I thought I would be taught about learning styles, which would help me in my role as a new TA on the MA illustration course at UCA, and would also help me to understand my own learning preferences, so I was surprised to find there is little evidence to support this widespread myth.

At the start of the PGCert, as I was getting used to online teaching and learning, I felt I needed to see information written down and printed out, rather than on screen. It made me think of different ‘Learning Styles’, such as ‘VARK’ styles of learning, where students are grouped by preferences – Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinaesthetic. (Fleming, 2005, cited in Gravells, 2014). I learnt about these while studying for a Level 3 Award in Education & Training, and at an induction day at UCA Farnham for creative workshop tutors. I described myself as a “multi-modal” cross between a visual and read/write learner.

However, I then discovered that:

“The existence of ‘Learning Styles’ is a common ‘neuromyth’, and their use in all forms of education has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited in the research literature … there is abundant clear evidence to show that they are not effective. One of these is Learning Styles, such as the ‘VAK’ classification.” (Newton, 2015)

Why are learning styles a problem?

What are the downsides of using these discredited classifications of learners? It seems harmless enough for learners to express preferences for different approaches in their education, and for teachers to act on “The claim at the center of learning-styles theory… Different students have different modes of learning, and their learning could be improved by matching one’s teaching with that preferred learning mode.” (Riener and Willingham, 2010)

But as Newton goes on to explain, the harm can come when students actively avoid pursuing subjects which contradict their perceived ideas about their own learning preferences, or wrongly develop confidence in areas which do match their ‘learning style’.

“Perhaps most importantly, the use of ineffective techniques such as Learning Styles can detract from the use of techniques which are demonstrably effective.” (Riener and Willingham, 2010; cited in Newton, 2015)

Or as Catherine Scott (2010) writes:

“Research conducted over the last 40 years has failed to show that individual attributes can be used to guide effective teaching practice. That ‘learning styles’ theory appeals to the underlying culture’s model of the person ensures the theory’s continued survival, despite the evidence against its utility. Rather than being a harmless fad, learning styles theory perpetuates the very stereotyping and harmful teaching practices it is said to combat.”

Scott (2010)

The benefits of learning in different ways

How has this new understanding affected my teaching? I have found this debate very interesting, and it has made me question assumptions I have made over the years about how and why we vary teaching methods. I will continue to use a variety of ways of delivering content. But I now know:

“Variety in modes of presentation can hold students’ attention and interest … it is not necessary to tailor your media to different learning styles…The value … will be determined by how it suits the content that we are asking students to learn and the background knowledge, interests and abilities that they bring to it.” (Riener and Willingham, 2010)

So I should tailor different delivery techniques according to how appropriate they are to the material, and to the diversity of the students themselves, rather than any notion of learning styles.

Riener and Willingham sum up their critique of the whole notion of learning styles by writing:

“Students differ in their abilities, interests and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning. As college educators, we should apply this to the classroom by continuing to present information in the most appropriate manner for our content and for the level of prior knowledge, ability, and interests of that particular set of students.”

(Riener and Willingham, 2010)

How does this new knowledge affect what I think about my own learning? I know that I find reading information on paper easier than looking at a screen. But perhaps it is because this is what I am used to, and I’m avoiding doing something difficult? I have researched this article almost entirely digitally, and I must admit it is getting easier. I often tell students that fear holds us back from trying out new ways of working, so I should follow my own advice and try working in new ways, rather than be limited by  prescriptive notions of learning styles.  

References

Gravells, A. (2014) The Award in Education and Training. (2nd Ed.) London: Sage.

Newton, PM. (2015) The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education. Front. Psychol., 15 December 2015  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908 (Accessed 25/10/2020)

Riener, C. and Willingham, D. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles. Change, Vol. 42, No.5, Sept/Oct 2010 https://www-jstor-org.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/stable/i25742620  (Accessed 25/10/2020)

Scott, C. (2010) The Enduring Appeal of ‘Learning Styles’. Australian Journal of Education, Vol. 54, Issue 1. April 2010  https://go-gale-com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&u=ucca&id=GALE|A226362816&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon (Accessed 26/10/2020)

About the author

Sophie Allsopp is an experienced illustration tutor, working as a sessional lecturer on the MA illustration course and as a creative workshop tutor for outreach and widening participation, both at University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. She is also a professional illustrator, and has illustrated over 32 books, as well as numerous other projects. Her picture book illustrations have won awards both in the UK and USA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: