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I have been as guilty as any of proposing and spreading the learning styles myth. Both early in my career as an English teacher to adults and as I moved into communication training to corporates. It felt good, seemed intuitively true and helped me get a grasp on the world. I thought I was doing a good thing and was proud of my knowledge. This, as I become more and more involved with neuroscience, slowly faded – it gradually became clear that this truly was a myth. A surprisingly quick search will find many pages that soundly and scientifically debunk the learning styles myth. The good news is the myth amongst teachers seems to be dropping; in a 2012 study 93% believed the myth – a more recent study published in 2017 showed 76% of teachers believing in it. However, that still leaves three quarters of teachers still believing a myth that has been resoundingly debunked for nigh on two decades. The good news in higher education, at least, is that in 2017 only 54% believed the myth according to another study. We are moving in the right direction, but it obviously still needs to be dispelled with a majority of educators.

The myth is so pervasive because it feels intuitively right, it feels good, it feels like we are respecting and valuing individual differences, and it feels like we are being effective as teachers. There are also multiple models that are pumping out literature, video, courses, and motivational messages and this combined with the intuitive feel for it keeps a self-feeding cycle in place. More surprising is that a 2015 review of academic papers that refer to learning styles, shows that 94% start out with a positive review of learning styles. This means that even a teacher that is reviewing academic literature on the topic of learning styles is likely to come across more positivity than negativity despite a profound lack of evidence learning styles do any good.

But first let’s understand a little more about where this all started:

Background

It all began in the 1970s and 1980’s – this was the beginning of the human potential movement and of increased awareness of success and personality including Gardner proposing the concept of multiple intelligences which immediately became wildly popular. Kolb’s Learning Styles model was one of the first proposed, as part of his work on experiential learning, and become a common part of teacher training. Kolb categorizes a processing aspect, thinking/feeling and a perception aspect, watching/doing. The model has, to give it credit, been refined over the years. One of the biggest problems is that measurement of thinking and feeling is considered a sliding scale – if you are a “feeler” you are not a “thinker”. This contrasts with some of our work and research into personality where we have noticed that high performers (including in educational contexts) have high intuition i.e. gut feeling, and high cognition i.e. thinking. Thinking and feeling are two abilities we have and these may both be high, both be low, or any other variation of this. This hence applies to any of the many models that see thinking and feeling as mutually exclusive.

Other learning style models have also been proposed especially VAK or VARK model which refers to modalities (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic). This was also popularized with the advent of NLP particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The VAK model states that we have preferred method of input Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic. This may intuitively feel good: “I like things when they are presented visually hence I am a visual leaner”. But, critically, it makes no sense – the brain is designed to operate with all senses in unison and integration. Research shows that we are all visual learners, irrespective of what we report. Research also shows that reported preference of learning styles has no correlation to learning.

In the meantime, there have been many others proposed, often backed by lucrative programs, workshops, material and sometimes modest scientific data. Some draw on what were current popular theories or were current developments in research and include cognitive styles and, for example, what had been recent research into neuroscience (which we at leading brains know a thing or two about). The fault is these are often based on preliminary research and assumptions but lack rigorous scientific evidence. As research progresses we only then see limitations of initial assumptions and research results. Marketeers often jump on any research if there is a potential to package this and market it effectively. This is more often than not debunked or moderated by later research.

But first what styles are there and what does the research say:

Styles & Research

Coffield et al’s meta-analysis (one of the most detailed reviews of learning styles) gives three categories:

  • Instructional Styles (e.g. Kolb), these claim that instructional styles impact learning outcomes e.g. In Kolb’s model it would be experiencing vs. observing.
  • Information Processing Styles (e.g. MBTI / VAK), these claim that we process information differently such as the VAK model suggesting that some process visual better than auditory and vice versa.
  • Cognitive Styles (e.g. Cognitive Styles Index – CSI), the claim that we have different cognitive ways of thinking such as left right brain (see our blog post here), cognitive vs. intuitive, etc. In Coffield’s study, the CSI had the most evidence to support its efficacy

Coffield et al selected, the 13 most promising styles from an initial selection of 71 possible theories. From these they only saw five with limited use.  Indeed, the biggest use seems to be in raising awareness and hence increasing student’s metacognition rather than in being effective methods of increasing learning impact. In fact, some research has pointed that learning styles may make us feel more comfortable but that more learning occurred in the non-preferred mode. This comes down to what is known as learning friction i.e. discomfort increases learning because of the extra effort required which activates more cognitive resources. So, ironically, the best way to stimulate learning may be by not teaching to preferred learning styles.

In contrast, using multiple approaches seems to be simply good practice – rather than targeting styles we all benefit from having material presented in different ways. The Yale Centre for Teaching and Learning summarizes it well here.

Are styles making us dumber?

There is also a down side to styles. They may raise awareness, but they also may lead us to discard other methods. i.e. “I am a visual leaner so can’t or won’t learn through auditory methods”. They not only raise awareness but give permission to go the easy route or even ignore learning in other styles “I am a visual learner, so won’t learn with auditory input”. Similarly, making learning fun and simple means that we can no longer engage with more complex learning processes. This may sound counter-intuitive but for true learning and effective learning to happen we need to engage the brain at intense levels – just not all the time (for recovery to happen as we have mentioned in previous blogs).

Leaning styles hence could be making us less willing to engage in the difficult stuff which is not a good lesson for life. Obviously, we do want learning and teaching to be fun and engaging but not everything in the real world is like this – more importantly, it is not how nature and biology works. For example, in Kolb’s experiential vs. reflective it may mean focusing on experiential learning at the expense of reflective learning – reflective learning and cognitive processes such as abstraction are, however, critical abilities and ones that we certainly would wish to approach. To build abstract and reflective thinking we need to practice it.

This is also illustrated in a learning style few consider – namely that of owls and larks. Those who are early risers, larks, are more active in the morning and can and want to learn earlier. Similarly, owls are more active later in the day and will engage better at later times (you may want to look at Sarah-Jayne Blackmore’s research on teenage brains and sleep). But what is surprising is that owls and larks are both more creative outside their preferred times – precisely because they’re outside their preferred times!

Metacognition is king!

A short note on our Human Behavioral Framework tool* because we developed this to;

1.    be a more accurate and refined way of measuring personality.

2.    be able to measure across traits, strengths, abilities and values

3.    raise deeper awareness and avoid over-simplified models

As we mentioned, we have measured high performers, such as award-winning teachers, and have noticed, in our preliminary research, a combination of high intuition and high cognition going against a cognitive styles model. This has also appeared in other traits such as risk and safety. Traits often combine; and learning to use them in more effective ways seems to contribute more to driving success. Therefore, the ability of metacognition, being able to reflect on thinking and learning, can be more effective than anything else. Indeed, focus on metacognition, has been shown to improve learning outcomes. Similarly, as we noted in our last blog post, teaching neuroplasticity has been shown to be effective. So, learning styles are out but learning about learning is in! Differentiating between studying and learning is also important: studying is about the process and learning is about the deeper mechanism of how the brain forms connections and memories and relationships to content.

*You can try the teacher/education version here

Summary

Learning styles, though feeling intuitively good, are soundly wrong. In fact, they may be dangerous and decrease learning outcomes. Using multiple methods to transport content is simple good practice in teaching Additionally, engaging students in metacognition, thinking about thinking and learning, and teaching neuroplasticity have been shown to improve learning outcomes. A final thought is that many classic dichotomies such as thinking vs. feeling may be fundamentally wrong and we should be trying to improve both. Ignoring one may lead to lack of development of critical life skills.

How will this help in teaching

There are many resources which point to good practice particularly around what we should be doing around the learning styles myth. The Yale site we quoted above is a good starting point.

  • All students benefit from different types of instruction
  • Thinking about thinking is beneficial
  • Learning friction – i.e. making it difficult, is also beneficial to learning– precisely not using a preferred format or the easy option
  • Differentiate studying and learning
  • Teaching neuroplasticity has been shown to be beneficial (especially for at risk students)

What to avoid in teaching

Primarily we should avoid talking about learning styles but rather increasing awareness of thinking and differentiating between learning and studying.

  • Avoid talking about learning styles – and differentiate between studying and learning
  • Avoid making it easy all the time
  • Avoid over simplistic and incorrect dichotomies such as thinking vs. feeling

Exercises*

To practice what we preach we give three exercises using the best of brain and learning techniques:

Learning Friction Exercise

Review Coffield et al’s review and consider whether we could consider using some of the methods to raise awareness in the classroom. If so, how, without falling into the learning styles myth?

Learning Ambiguity Exercise

How do we differentiate between learning and studying and enable students to find the right methods to study while telling them that learning styles are a myth?

Paradoxical Thinking Exercise

We mention that intuition and cognitive skills can be both high. How can we encourage students to use both when they may conflict with each other and the boundary is unclear?

*Learning friction is when we have to apply more effort or discomfort to learn something, it becomes more effective – so simple, fun learning is sometimes not as beneficial as more difficult or less pleasurable exercises!

*Learning ambiguity creates a reason for the brain to resolve ambiguity – when the world is stable and unchanging the brain does not need to learn so creating ambiguity is beneficial to learning and also stimulates friction.

*Paradox relates to the above two but are unresolvable issues but still enable and stimulate learning through being able to deal with unresolvable situations.

Links

General reading

The Guardian: No evidence to back idea of learning styles https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/12/no-evidence-to-back-idea-of-learning-styles

Wired: All you need to know about the learning styles myth in two minutes https://www.wired.com/2015/01/need-know-learning-styles-myth-two-minutes/

Why the Widespread Belief in ‘Learning Styles’ Is Not Just Wrong; It’s Also Dangerous https://bigthink.com/neurobonkers/why-the-widespread-belief-in-learning-styles-is-not-just-wrong-its-also-dangerous

The Guardian: Teenagers’ brains not ready for GCSEs say neuroscientist https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/29/teenagers-brains-not-ready-for-gcses-says-neuroscientist

The Telegraph: The Science Behind Teenage Laziness https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11410483/Revealed-the-science-behind-teenage-laziness.html

Scientific Reading

Yale Center for Teaching and Learning – “Learning Styles as a Myth” https://ctl.yale.edu/LearningStylesMyth

British Psychological Society: It feels as though we learn better via our preferred learning style, but we don’t https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/10/05/it-feels-as-though-we-learn-better-via-our-preferred-learning-style-but-we-dont/#more-10662

3 reasons most teachers still believe the learning styles myth https://edexcellence.net/articles/3-reasons-most-teachers-still-believe-the-learning-styles-myth

Scientific Papers

Frontiers in Psychology: The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908/full#B11http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

Frontiers in Psychology: Dispelling the Myth: Training in Education or Neuroscience Decreases but Does Not Eliminate Beliefs in Neuromyths https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01314/full

Coffield et als. Review: Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning can be downloaded here: http://www.leerbeleving.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/learning-styles.pdf

Frontiers in Psychology: Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important? https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00444/full

Owls and Larks: Morningness and eveningness personality: A survey in literature from 1995 up till 2006 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886907002516