In the first of a series, Dr Pedro De Bruyckere explores the reality behind some of the more popular misconceptions in education, and asks if there is any truth in them.
This issue: learning styles
The great pretender – the truth behind learning styles
I’ll start this piece with a little confession. As a songwriter I couldn’t help including a song about my job as
an educational myth-buster on the first album of my band. On Kiss Me Twice by Blue and Broke, there’s a song called ‘Naïve’ and one line of the song provided some inspiration for the title of these short articles on education myths: ‘There is some truth in every lie.’
What Paul Kirschner, Casper Hulshof and myself have discovered over the past few years is that there are often some grains of truth hidden in ideas that can rightfully be called Urban Myths about Learning and Education. For example, the shape of the infamous learning pyramid – one of my favourite myths that I call ‘the Loch Ness Monster of education’ – is actually based on one of the oldest theories on the use of multimedia in the classroom, the ‘Cone of Experience’ by Edgar Dale…from 1946!
Maybe I’ll tackle that myth later in the series, but let’s first start with another big one: what is the grain of truth hidden in learning styles?
The myth in short
For the people who think you should adapt your teaching to the supposed learning styles of your pupils, know this:
1. There is no evidence that it works
2. There are plenty of different categorisations
3. If you think it works, you can try to win $5000!
If you’d like to know how to win the prize, I’ll share the short version1 with you. Take at least 70 pupils and give them all a learning style test. I’ll explain what you need to do with two possible learning styles (auditory and visual learners) but you can pick whatever theory you like (e.g., Kolb, Honey and Mumford, Felder-Silverman, etc.) from the 71 known categorisations (Coffield et al., 2004). Then you’ll need to organise the groups into two conditions:
Group 1 will be taught according to their assumed learning style. The visual learners will get their information graphically presented; the auditory learners will get to listen to the information.
Group 2 will be taught according to the opposite of their assumed learning style. The auditory learners will get their information shown to them, the visual learners will get to listen to the information.
You randomly put half of the 70 pupils in the first group, the other 35 in the second group. If you can demonstrate that the pupils in group 1 have learned a sizeable amount more than the pupils in group 2, you might be in line to win the $5000 reward that Will Talheimer offered many years ago. Check his website for the longer version of the challenge. Do note, however: nobody has succeeded yet.
There is no correlation between following your learning preferences and better learning results.
The grain(s) of truth in the myth
As with most myths, there’s a grain of truth lurking somewhere. In fact, there are actually two grains of truth in the learning styles myth: a misleading one and a potentially helpful one.
Let’s start with the more misleading truth: people probably do not have a learning style – a best way of learning that a teacher needs to adapt to; however, people do often have learning preferences. Why is this a bit misleading? It’s because people become convinced that these preferences are the best way to learn: ‘Yeah, I just have to write stuff down and I will remember it best that way.’ There is a sad fact I need to share with you though: there is no correlation between following your learning preferences and better learning results (e.g., Rogowsky et al., 2015).
The second grain of truth is more helpful. If you combine different modalities (e.g. both visual and auditory senses) people will typically learn more. For example, dual-coding theory suggests that it’s better to combine images with words if you want to remember something (e.g., Mayer & Anderson, 1992).
I’ll leave you with Yana Weinstein (2016) from The Learning Scientists, who offers a great four-step summary of the science:
People have preferences for how they learn.
All people learn better when more senses are engaged.
Some people benefit from additional modalities more than other people.
No one suffers from the addition of a modality that’s not their favourite.
Check this page for the long version: www.worklearning.com/2014/08/04/learning-styles-challenge-year-eight/
Download a PDF version of this issue.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015) ‘Matching learning style to instructional method: effects on comprehension’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 107 (1) pp. 64–78.
Mayer, R. E., & Anderson, R. B. (1992) ‘The instructive animation: helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 4, pp. 444–452.
Weinstein, Y. (2016) ‘Just semantics? Subtle but important misunderstandings about learning styles, modalities, and preferences’, The Learning Spy [blog]. www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/just-semantics-subtle-but-important-misunderstandings-about-learning-styles-modalities-and-preferences/