Are learning styles myth or reality?

students-in-classroom

In the education industry the belief that each student has their a unique “learning style” seems like settled law. Do a little research and you’ll discover over 70 different types of learning style schemes which try to group students based on the way they learn best. The concept of learning styles has become so pervasive that educators are strongly encouraged to identify the learning style of each of their students and then adapt their teaching, lesson plans, and homework assignments to help optimize the comprehension of each student.

But are any of these types of learning styles real, and can they truly help students learn better? The lack of research showing the value of learning styles means that we need to start asking big and important questions about what’s happening in our classrooms and what is truly the best way to teach students.

Where did learning styles originate?

Ever since Alfred Binet developed the first intelligence test in 1904, humans have been fascinated with intelligence and learning. Walk into any classroom, and it becomes quickly apparent that some students learn more quickly than others even when they study the same material.

Why is that? Does the answer lay with the innate intelligence of the students or with the way teachers present materials to the class? The 1950s and 1960s saw a growing trend in grouping people into distinct groups based on personality traits through systems like Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

By the 1980s, researchers and educators had begun to wonder if students held individual “preferences” in the way they learned new material. The 1980s and 1990s saw a slew of different learning style systems, including popular models like Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, VARK, and the Kolb learning style.

What are learning styles?

What exactly are learning styles? An article published by Vanderbilt University explains, “Despite the variation in categories, the fundamental idea behind learning styles is the same: that each of us has a specific learning style (sometimes called a “preference”), and we learn best when information is presented to us in this style.”

One of the most popular types of learning styles is VARK, which was developed in 1992 by Neil D. Fleming and Colleen Mills.

VARK stands for:

  • Visual
  • Aural/Auditory
  • Read/write
  • Kinesthetic

The idea behind VARK is that each student has a learning preference (or multiple preferences) that aligns with these categories and learns best when receiving information through that modality. For example, visual learners “prefer the use of images, maps, and graphic organizers to access and understand new information,” while, “students who are kinesthetic learners best understand information through tactile representations of information,” according to Teach.com.

Why learning styles matter

The embrace of the learning style concept among educators and learning institutions has had a significant impact on the way teachers manage their classrooms. Just take a look at this typical quote from Teach.com:

“It is important for educators to understand the differences in their students’ learning styles, so that they can implement best practice strategies into their daily activities, curriculum and assessments.”

The adoption of the learning style ideology means that teachers are spending valuable time and effort in the classroom trying to figure out how each and every student learns best and then adapting their teaching methods for each student. Additionally, a huge industry has grown up around this concept, with dozens of learning style schemes vying for attention and footholds in classrooms.

The crazy thing is, this could all be for nothing! That’s because researchers are beginning to raise serious doubts about whether teaching to a student’s learning style preference can really improve their educational experience.

Are learning styles real?

In 2008, a group of cognitive psychologists set out to evaluate all the scientific research related to learning styles. After performing a thorough meta-analysis, the researchers published a paper in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Essentially, the researchers found almost no evidence that teaching to a student’s preference improved their learning.

According to Vanderbilt University, “It’s not simply a matter of ‘the absence of evidence doesn’t meant the evidence of absence.’ On the contrary, for years researchers have tried to make this connection through hundreds of studies.” In summarizing the findings the 2008 research teach, Vanderbilt University explains that many of the existing studies they analyzed, “suffered from weak research design, rendering them far from convincing.”

This study thorough debunking of the learning styles theory has been around for over 10 years, so why is faith in types of learning styles still so strong? One reason probably has to do with the enormous industry that supports the learning styles concepts. Another power reason is that the idea of learning styles can make is easier and more understandable for students, parents, and teachers to explain why certain students thrive in the classroom while others struggle.

Where do learning styles go from here?

Is the idea that we each learn in a unique and special way completely dead? Not necessarily. Vanderbilt University reports that emerging evidence shows that instead of tailoring the lessons to the students, teachers might be better off customizing their lessons to the subject matter.

There is a growing school of thought that certain topics are best taught using distinct learning modalities. For example, using kinesthetic-centered lessons makes a lot of sense in gym class. After all, students will probably learn to play soccer better by practicing drills and playing games then watching a team play on television. Similarly, it makes sense to use auditory lessons in music class, reading and writing lessons in English, and visual lessons in geography. Of course, most subjects can benefit from a variety of modalities used together to give students a more holistic understanding of the topic.

So, where do we go from here? The research suggests that teachers don’t need to spend so much time catering to the individual learning styles of each student. Instead, they may want to consider what types of modalities can best bring their subject to life and captivate their students.

If you are looking for an excellent visual modality to use as part of your lesson plan that will also engage your students, consider adding Poll Everywhere to your classroom. Our activities will let you ask questions about a topic and allow your students to answer from their phones or computers. Aggregate opinions, see how comfortable students are with a topic at the beginning of a lesson, or even get feedback on how students prefer to learn. With Poll Everywhere, you can do it all.