Learning Styles refer to the idea that students learn best when course content is pitched to match students’ self-reported media preferences. Endless potential frameworks for categorizing learning styles exist, but the most popular one divides students into three types: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. According to this theory, a self-reported visual learner learns best through visual content, while an auditory learner finds visual content less helpful than auditory material.
Yet the overwhelming consensus among scholars is that no scientific evidence backs this “matching” hypothesis of learning styles (Kirschner 2017, Pashler 2008, Simmonds 2014). While all learners can develop subjective preferences for studying or digesting material, studies deny that students learn better through a self-reported learning style. Instead, scholars increasingly call for educators to replace ‘neuromyths’ with resources and strategies rooted in evidence from cognitive and adult learning theory.
In addition to the three core styles, over 71 separate learning-style instruments and theories have been documented in education literature (Coffield et al 2004). 30 popular ones include (Pashler 2008):
· convergers vs. divergers
· verbalizers vs. imagers
· holists vs. serialists
· deep vs. surface learning
· activists vs. reflectors
· pragmatists vs. theorists
· adaptors vs. innovators
· assimilators vs. explorers
· field dependent vs. field independent
· globalists vs. analysts
· assimilators vs. accommodators
· imaginative vs. analytic learners
· non-committers vs. plungers
· common-sense vs. dynamic learners
· concrete vs. abstract learners
· random vs. sequential learners
· initiators vs. reasoners
· intuitionists vs. analysts
· extroverts vs. introverts
· sensing vs. intuition
· thinking vs. feeling
· judging vs. perceiving
· left brainers vs. right brainers
· meaning-directed vs. undirected
· theorists vs. humanitarians
· activists vs. theorists
· pragmatists vs. reflectors
· organizers vs. innovators
· lefts/analytics/inductives/successive processors vs. rights/globals/deductives/simultaneous processors
· executive, hierarchic, conservative vs. legislative, anarchic, liberal
A variety of sites in the consumer industry, including VARK, Learning Styles Online, and Education Planner encourage students and learners to ‘find their learning style,’ exhibiting a) how wide and popular the notion has become in culture, and b) the ways that online inventory and profiling quiz culture can warp educational research. Instructors might prepare for their students to arrive in class with certain assumptions about their most efficient modes of learning.
Many instructors still gravitate towards the learning-styles framework because of its seeming intuitiveness and resonance with teaching experiences. A broader approach that invites students to reflect on their learning, rather than narrow their style down, has been shown to improve learning outcomes (Ambrose et. al, 2010).
- Studying vs. Learning - Instructors can help students understand the difference between studying styles and learning processes. Students will develop their own preferences for reviewing content, but these practices differ from deeper cognitive processes like “chunking,” building on prior knowledge, making conceptual connections, and transferring knowledge. Ambrose, et. al (2010) and the National Research Council (2000) offer excellent overviews of these deeper processes, and explain why multiple modes of instruction assist all students.
- Students benefit from different kinds of instruction - Because learning requires complex, often uneven developmental steps like building on prior knowledge, forming conceptual structures slowly, and varieties of repetition, students benefit when instruction provides various ways to enter into learning. Alternating modes can serve different students’ aptitude, level of self-awareness as a learner, and cultural background. Instructors should imagine students to be neither uniform, nor categorized, in their learning, but instead experiencing similar development through singular personalities and experiences. As such, instructors can incorporate active learning, group work, and inclusive teaching strategies to invite students to engage their full faculties and experience peer learning. Multiple modalities can assist all students regardless of proposed learning style: research shows, for instance, that students learn more deeply from words and visuals than from words alone. Multimedia presentation encourages active cognitive processing, promoting meaningful learning (Mayer 2003).
- Students benefit from thinking about how they learn - Research shows that students benefit when given opportunities to reflect on assignments, exams, and activities, and that learning outcomes improve when instructors help students think about how they drew connections, digested content, or arrived at conclusions (Kaplan, et. al, 2013). This process of metacognition helps students think about their thinking, and helps students identify ways to improve their learning and avoid weak habits of thought or study.
- Effective instructional methods can vary across disciplines and course content - Proposed learning styles do not always fit disciplinary norms; for example, writing courses benefit from a significant verbal component, geometry courses from a visual component, and lab classes from an experiential component. Instructors can be aware of predominant presentation styles in their discipline, and consider discipline-specific resources to widen their modes of instruction.
Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research – Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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.
Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavaque-Manty, D., and Meizlish, D., eds. (2013). Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.