In recent decades, the idea of learning styles has spread broadly in the educational field. Its supporters make the argument that human beings learn in distinctly different ways from one another and people will therefore learn most effectively via instruction methods tailored to the way they learn best. It’s an incredibly useful idea, but its critics bring up a variety of valid points. Their central argument is that the way someone prefers to learn does not necessarily correlate with the way they learn best, and that learning styles is erroneous because it assumes that people prefer what is best for them. Critics also cite a substantial body of research that has examined the predictive power of learning styles-based instruction to achieve better learning outcomes and found no correlation.
These critiques are compelling, but they are looking at learning styles from a classroom perspective, rather than a student perspective. The researchers are taking the standpoint of the teacher and what research shows happens when teachers use learning styles in their curriculum. From this perspective, the critiques hold.
What coaches do is different because our goal is empowerment of the individual – in this case, the students themselves. Despite its problems with scientific validation, learning styles may still be useful from an individual’s standpoint. Rather than the top-down framework of “does this work for teachers?”, we ask ourselves how this framework can help students understand how they learn and therefore how they can take what’s coming at them, in whatever format it’s in, and think about it in a way that works for them. It isn’t a tool we use to help people understand the only way they can learn – it’s a tool to help people understand how they like to learn and therefore areas for improvement in other learning styles too. It’s about empowering learners to understand and take control of their own cognitive process to their benefit.
That said, it’s imperative that we as coaches understand the critiques of learning styles and why they are scientifically defensible in order to clearly explain how we use learning styles differently to empower individuals.
The journal Computers and Education invited Kirschner to submit a literature review critiquing learning styles after he tweeted scathing criticism of an article promoting learning styles they recently had published. His overall argument is that learning preference is fundamentally a function of human values rather than actual cognition and instructional development should follow cognitive science rather than subjective self-reports of learners’ values. Published in that same journal in 2017, his resulting paper provides a review of literature concerning learning styles, highlighting several problems with pigeonholing, reliability of survey instruments, counter evidence, and experimental design problems.
In the context of Kirschner’s paper, Newton and Miah (2017) investigate how widespread the belief in learning styles actually is in the academic community. They administered a survey to educators in the UK to quantify what proportion of educators believe in learning styles and practice it despite the absence of evidence.
Learning styles may be the easy way out, from the perspective of the teacher. The important distinction between how people like to learn and how they best learn may be as simple as how they like to learn being easiest for them. If it’s easy it means they aren’t being challenged. If they aren’t being challenged they might not be learning as much. For example, according to flow theory, challenging conditions are actually required for learning, and as people learn more they require more difficult challenges to continue the learning process. If a teacher tries to teach students based on the way they learn most easily, it will be a logistical nightmare. Imagine a teacher doing the same lesson in visual, audio, and physical formats. Secondly, students won’t be challenged to understand themselves.
When we apply learning styles to the perspective of the individual learner, students can learn to understand themselves. They can learn to consciously process information in a way that works for them.
Kirschner’s review paper synthesizes research looking at the validity of learning styles from several angles. He offers the following conclusions:
Learning styles can pigeonhole learners according to arbitrary criteria. So, if someone is classified as a visual learner they may construct self-limiting beliefs about their ability to learn in non-visual fields like reading and math. On the other hand, they may construct unrealistic beliefs about their talent in learning situations that apply their perceived learning style.
People don’t necessarily know what’s best for them. It would be correct to say that learning styles based instruction reflects learners’ subjective learning (how they like to learn) rather than objective learning (how they best learn). Kirschner cites several studies that suggest the two are not correlated. For example, Clark (1982) actually found that peoples’ preferences for learning were at best not correlated at all with how much they learned and at worst negatively correlated – so, in some cases they actually performed worse with the learning style that they preferred. He coined the term “mathemathantic”, literally meaning death of learning, to describe learners who prefer learning styles that are ineffective or counterproductive. Kirschner (2017) likens this to how people may prefer salty or fatty foods, which are not good for them. People who repeatedly yield to this preference and eat these foods in abundance can become very unhealthy. Likewise, people who repeatedly try to learn through preferring what’s easy will experience learning stagnation.
Experimental design problems. Kirschner presents results from Coffield et al. (2004), who examined the 12 survey tools that are most widely used to determine someone’s learning style. They tested each survey tool with four criteria – internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity (generalizability and how well the evidence supports the theory), and predictive validity (correlation between survey scores and the outcome they are supposedly associated with – in this case, actual learning). None of the 12 tools used to determine learning style met all four of these criteria. Only two of them met three criteria. Three didn’t meet any criteria.
Kirschner writes, “And the list of research showing that the learning styles emperor has no clothing is exhausting,” (2017, p. 170). He reviews significant counter-evidence. A lot of statistically defensible research has been published that has examined learning style associations with learning outcomes and found no statistically significant relationship [see Constantidinou and Baker (2002), Massa and Mayer (2006), Cook et al., (2009), Rogowksy, Calhoun, and Tallal (2015), Morrison et al., (2011), Dembo and Howard (2007)].
Kirschner concludes by a call to action with the research community: “We want to urge ourselves as scientists to get our act together,” (2017 p. 170). He extends this plea to researchers and instruction practitioners (professors, school teachers, etc.) to stop promoting the use of learning styles because there is no evidence to suggest its merit and it may actually be doing harm.
Newton and Miah (2017) set out to quantify how widespread the learning style belief is in the academic community. They, like Kirschner (2017), clarify that learning styles remains a hypothesis because it does not have enough correlative real-world evidence to classify it as a theory. They suggest it is actually more of a belief, because there is significant real-world evidence that actually disproves it. It is a belief because it remains a widely used idea despite being repeatedly disproved scientifically.
They distributed an email survey to education professionals at eight United Kingdom higher education organizations. These professionals distributed the email again to their internal listservs. The online survey was open to take for two months, resulting in 114 completed surveys from a broad range of education professionals in the biological, physical, and social sciences, humanities, healthcare, business, law, and arts fields.
Results indicated that a high proportion of academics in the UK believe using learning styles is effective. 58% of the respondents agreed with a statement on the survey that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic),” (p. 6). 64% of them indicated that they generally try to incorporate learning styles into their teaching approaches.
More interestingly, even though a majority of the respondents believed in the learning styles idea, they actually incorporated specific learning style tools at a much lower rate. Only 33%, for example, reported actually giving their students a learning style questionnaire. The authors still find this problematic, because the technique was shown to be meaningless 10 years earlier, even though their study showed the lowest rates of learning style use of any study to that point.
Clark, R. E. (1982). Antagonism between achievement and enjoyment in ATI studies. Educational Psychologist, 17, 92–101.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Constantidinou, F., & Baker, S. (2002). Stimulus modality and verbal learning performance in normal aging. Brain and Language, 82, 296-311.
Cook, D. A., Thompson, W. G., Thomas, K. G., & Thomas, M. R. (2009). Lack of interaction between sensing-intuitive learning styles and problem-first versus information-first instruction: A randomized cross-over trial. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 14, 79-90.
Dembo, M. H., & Howard, K. (2007). Advice about the use of learning styles: A major myth in education. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 37(2), 101-109.
Kirshner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171.
Massa, L. J., & Mayer, R. E. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences, 16, 321-336.
Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., Kalman, H. K., & Kemp, J. E. (2011). In Designing effective instruction (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Newton, P. M. and Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-based higher education: Is the learning styles ‘myth’ important? Frontiers in Psychology 8(444).
Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 64-78.