Why does the learning styles myth persist?

The belief that people have certain learning styles has been with us for some time now, as has the controversy that surrounds it. However, despite the best efforts of psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and education professionals, this myth persist.

The theory of learning styles implies that there exist different ways of learning and that individuals have a particular style that is best for them. From this arises the myth – the notion that students learn better when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles, the so-called matching hypothesis.

If we apply this to the most popular theory of learning styles (generally referred to as VAK – Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic), we could suggest that a particular pupil is a ‘visual learner’, that is, they learn best when presented with information as images rather than written or spoken, or involving bodily movements.

The Problem

There is some logic in this view and this is perhaps one of the reasons why the myth continues to influence educators from early years to university (Newton, 2015). Models of memory and learning do suggest the existence of different modalities that generally equate to these learning styles. Furthermore, recent research is beginning to support the idea that cognition isn’t confined to the brain but is ‘embodied’. Dual coding theory, for example, highlights the need to employ different modalities to enhance learning, so a teacher might combine words and related images or students might support written explanation of concepts with drawings. Indeed, a 2018 study found the dual coding was a much better teaching and learning method than learning styles, stating that ‘learning styles instruction is an ineffective method for teachers to employ, and that, instead, incorporating principles of dual coding would have a much greater benefit to student learning’ (Cuevas & Dawson, 2018)

When we combine this modality view of learning with how people think they learn best, it’s not too much of a leap from learning preference to learning style – and this is where things start to become messy.

The first problem we encounter is deciding on an individual learning style. We can’t simply ask a person what there learning style is, we have to measure it using some kind or scale or questionnaire, at least if we’re going to try and be scientific about it.

In 2004, Frank Coffield examined 13 of the most influential learning style models (he actually identified 71, so learning styles is far from confined to just VAK). He found that none of the 13 had been adequately validated through peer review, calling into question their ability to measure anything. In an article for the Guardian in 2006, Coffield stated, ‘We do students a serious disservice by implying they only have one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.’

But the problem didn’t stop there. A 2018 study found that teacher’s assessments of learning styles didn’t correspond with that of their students, in other words, they couldn’t agree on their preferred learning style (Papadatou-Pastou, Gritzali, & Barrable, 2018). This would suggest that efficacy of the measures used to assess learning style haven’t changed much since 2004.

Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University and author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology isn’t a fan of learning styles either, stating that matching teaching styles to students’ learning styles ‘encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses… and could actually backfire.’

‘We do students a serious disservice by implying they only have one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.’ ~ Frank Coffield

There certainly doesn’t appear to be very much evidence in favour of the matching hypothesis, despite learning styles continuing to be a popular area of research (a quick Google Scholar search returns more the 20,000 results since 2018). However, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has stated, ‘There is reason to think that people view learning styles theories as broadly accurate, but, in fact, scientific support for these theories is lacking. We suggest that educators’ time and energy are better spent on other theories that might aid instruction’ (Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015). Paul Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands has emphasised that ‘nearly all studies that report evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy just about all of the key criteria for scientific validity’ (Kirschner, 2017).

An added problem with the VAK model of learning styles lies in its development. VAK is, in part, influenced by a therapeutic technique known as Neuro-linguistic Programming (or NLP) that itself exists outside mainstream psychology. NLP is a fringe theory with little empirical support and a weight of criticisms. In his book, Great Myths of the Brain, psychologist and writer Christian Jarrett states that ‘Computational and neurological references used by NLP are largely gratuitous and the central tenets don’t stand up to scrutiny’. Jarrett continues, ‘It’s a difficult system to interrogate because its methods and claims are so amorphous, inconsistent and slippery’ (p22).

If there is so little evidence, why does the myth persist?

The simple answer might be that people simply don’t realise that it is a myth. While a growing number of teachers and other educational professionals are now becoming interested in research, the majority are not. Debates about learning styles might be common on social media and at teaching events, but the majority of teachers don’t engage in these activities. While it’s becoming more difficult to avoid the controversy around learning styles, there are no doubt many who remain unaware.

Another possibility is that people have already invested time and effort (and possibly money) in the belief that they should match their teaching style with students’ learning styles. In these circumstances there can arise the view that to abandon the venture and the belief would be to waste the time and effort already expended (the so-called sunk-cost fallacy). In such circumstances it might be more appropriate to encourage individuals to replace learning styles with something that doesn’t appear to negate all their efforts, such as moving towards a dual-coding strategy.

Paul Howard Jones, professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol, is particularly concerned about the prevalence of such myths in education. One explanation he gives for this is emotional bias, the view that these myths arise through anxiety and wishful thinking. People leap on fads or media stories related to learning and often see them as a quick fix. This isn’t restricted to learning styles and has been seen following stories in the media about students needing to drink lots of water to improve learning. Again, there is a grain of truth in this, in that the ability to learn can be impaired if people are dehydrated. Yet, in societies with a generally healthy population and plenty of access to clean drinking water, incidence of severe dehydration are rare.

Howard Jones also suggests that myths are fuelled by a distortion of the facts. Partial or imprecise understanding of learning may lead to the adoption of the matching hypothesis. We understand that people learn using multiple modalities and that teaching all students using all senses can be very effective. This forms the basis of dual-coding theory, yet partial or inaccurate information might well lead us to assume that we can achieve the same results by teaching a student who might appear to favour a particular modality, whereas the evidence indicates the opposite to be the case. Incidents may also arise where individuals use dual-coding to support learning styles.

Whichever way we choose to dispel this particularly persistent myth, we must take into account that beliefs are difficult to change. Often, the harder we push the more resistance we encounter. Remaining consistent and persistent, yet flexible have been found to be most effective types of influence. In a recent article, science writer David Robson offers six suggestions on how to influence people and, for me, the most important is Be kind – it’s unlikely that ridiculing or demeaning people for their beliefs is going to win any arguments.

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Cuevas, J., & Dawson, B. L. (2018). A test of two alternative cognitive processing models: Learning styles and dual coding. Theory and Research in Education, 16(1), 40–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878517731450

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers and Education, 106, 166–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006

Newton, P. M. (2015). The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(DEC), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908

Papadatou-Pastou, M., Gritzali, M., & Barrable, A. (2018). The Learning Styles Educational Neuromyth: Lack of Agreement Between Teachers’ Judgments, Self-Assessment, and Students’ Intelligence. Frontiers in Education, 3(November), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00105

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315589505

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