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Why learning styles theory is a myth, and what to use instead.

The idea of learning styles has been around for decades, and it’s still as popular as ever- in fact 80- 95% of teachers[i] believe individuals learn better in their preferred learning style. But here is the big secret- it’s not true.


The theory says that people can be grouped into different learning styles, and that they learn better if the information is presented to them in that style.

Briony the brain, with a question mark

The most popular version is known as VARK, after the 4 groups it divides learners into:

  • Visual learners who learn best from looking at images, or diagrams, or watching demonstrations

  • Auditory learners, who prefer listening to lectures, or hearing someone explain something

  • Reading & writing learners (this one is pretty self-explanatory)

  • Kinaesthetic learners, who need to learn by physically doing something for themselves.


Two girls coloring using crayons on white paper

This makes a lot of sense- we all know people who seem to learn differently to us. And so, schools all over the world began using this idea. Armed with a learning styles quiz, they attempted to identify their students’ preferred VARK learning styles. And they encouraged teachers to teach in ways that suited these different styles.


The problem is, intuitive as it seems, the idea just isn't right.


In fact, study after study has been published on the topic of learning styles, and, in general, they say the same thing[ii]. Though students might claim to prefer a certain way of learning, being taught in that way doesn’t actually help boost their learning[iii]. And it doesn't seem to translate to better grades or easier revision either.


A girl playing with a puzzle made of colored sticks

One study, for example, asked more than 400 undergraduate anatomy students to take the test, determining their VARK learning style. They found that only about 1/3 of the students used study strategies that aligned with their learning style, and these students didn’t perform any better in class. There were also no particular benefits of any other VARK study strategies, although there were types of revision that led to better grades (using the notes provided by the lecturers, for example, rather than external websites).[iv]


So if discovering a child’s learning style and teaching them in their preferred way isn't going to help them, what will? It turns out that different methods of teaching do matter, but it’s fitting the style to the content you are teaching that's important, not the student. So if you are teaching geometry, you will probably use more diagrams than if you are teaching literature[v].


A man teaching two boys

There is also evidence that using as many different types of teaching style as is suitable for that content can help. For example, studies have found that presenting a word and an image together helps people remember it better than either alone[vi]. To store information for the long term, your brain has to extract the gist of that information, and fit it in with things you already know[vii]. You can help your students do this by approaching the material from different angles, and encouraging them to connect it with knowledge from previous modules, or even different subjects. Repetition is also really important[viii], but doing this in different ways can fight boredom and help get those memories stored in the brain. You can get an extra boost by helping students to reflect on their learning, and explore ways they can draw these connections themselves[ix]. We cover loads more top tips for learning and memory, and the neuroscience behind them in our Mastering Memory show and workshop. For a sneak peek, why not check out our recent blog, about how understanding the brain can boost learning.


Sadly, it seems the myth of learning styles theory is a tough one to overcome, but hopefully by spreading real, science backed tips to improve learning outcomes for your students, we can do our part to debunk it. While it may seem harmless, the last thing a busy teacher needs is to waste their time working out how to teach spelling to kinaesthetic learners! So instead of creating more work we hope to empower teachers to use strategies that are backed by evidence, and will really benefit their students.


Sources:

[i] Frontiers | How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review | Education

[ii] Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271

[iii] Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of educational psychology, 107(1), 64

[iv] Husmann, P. R., & O'Loughlin, V. D. (2019). Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles. Anatomical sciences education, 12(1), 6-19

[v] Learning Styles as a Myth | Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning

[vi] The promise of multimedia learning: using the same instructional design methods across different media - ScienceDirect

[vii] Tracking the relation between gist and item memory over the course of long-term memory consolidation | eLife

[viii] Repetition and Learning | Encyclopedia.com

[ix]The use of metacognitive strategies for undisrupted online learning: Preparing university students in the age of pandemic | SpringerLink

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