Do Students Really Have Different Learning Styles?

| April 13, 2012 | 38 Comments
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Lenny Gonzales

Learning styles—the notion that each student has a particular mode by which he or she learns best, whether it’s visual, auditory or some other sense—is enormously popular. It’s also been thoroughly debunked.

The scientific research on learning styles is “so weak and unconvincing,” concluded a group of distinguished psychologists in a 2008 review, that it is not possible “to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” A 2010 article was even more blunt: “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,” wrote University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener. While students do have preferences about how they learn, the evidence shows they absorb information just as well whether or not they encounter it in their preferred mode.

The “learning style” that teachers and parents should focus on is the universal learning style of the human mind.

This doesn’t mean, however, that teachers and parents should present material to be learned in just one fashion. All learners benefit when information is put forth in diverse ways that engage a multitude of the senses. Take, for example, a program that teaches math using music. At Hoover Elementary School in Northern California, a group of third-graders learned to connect the numerical representation of fractions with the value of musical notes, such as half-notes and eighth notes. Fractions are notoriously difficult for young students to grasp, and a failure to catch on early can hobble their performance in math into middle and high school. Clapping, drumming and chanting gave these pupils another avenue through which to understand the concept.

Called “Academic Music,” the program was designed by San Francisco State education professor Susan Courey and three colleagues. Last month, Courey reported on the results of Academic Music in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics. After six weeks of music-based teaching, students scored 50 percent higher on a fractions test than students in the same school who attended conventional math classes. Children who started out with less fraction knowledge responded well to the musical instruction, Courey writes, “and produced post-test scores similar to their higher achieving peers.”

The lesson here: The “learning style” that teachers and parents should focus on is the universal learning style of the human mind, and two characteristics of it in particular.

First, students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms. They learn more, for example, from flashcards that incorporate both text and images—charts, graphs, etc.—than from cards that display text alone.

Second, students’ interest is kept alive by novelty and variety, so regularly turning away from textbooks and blackboards is key. As long as the new activity genuinely informs the students about the academic subject at hand, clapping a math lesson—or sketching in science class, or acting during story time—can help every student to learn better.

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  • http://twitter.com/wroate Radhika

    That’s utter trash. I really like lectures, they allow me to get more information because I capture things quicker when presented in an auditory format. When I am just shown visual examples, it’s like I see it,  but I don’t take it in. 

    I have a learning style and people I know have a different learning style. Ask us for amount of understanding with different formats, you will get extremely different results. I don’t know about these tests, but in my own experience of 10 years of schooling (with 7 more to go), that is trash.

  • Knickygill

    There
    also isn’t enough evidence to disprove learning styles. I for one,
    never remembered how to do anything unless I am shown how to do it step by
    step. Especially when it came to math. As a kid I had to be right next
    to the teacher and watch every mark she made before I could even
    conceive of how to solve the problem. I always sat up front so that I could see everything the teacher was doing and do be able to copy the overheads better. If I read things and then write
    them down I also tend to remember them. Students in my class also exhibit this same trait. A few of them are fine just sitting back and listening and do good on tests but others do poorly if I don’t offer hand outs as well as the lecture. Some are better off reading the book and keeping their own notes on everything. So, I for one, will continue to
    believe in “learning style”.

    • Cindy

      Everybody who writes things down tends to remember them better. It’s not a style.

      • Knickygill

         Yes, I understand that. My main point though was that everything started with being able to “see” what was going on.

  • C Warren

    There’s actually quite a lot of research to support different modalities.  To cite two articles as evidence that modalities have been “thoroughly debunked” is irresponsible and silly.  

    Look at the work of School of One in NY (http://schoolofone.org/concept.html)… One of the most interesting innovations to hit public education in years, highly based on the concept of modalities.  Much more fresh and relevant than the two articles you cite.

    • Kukth

       it’s been known for years that learning styles don’t exist. It suits a certain industry to propagate this myth.The same with “right brain – left brain”. There is a lot of money to be made. I’ve been taught this stuff and used it “on my students” without checking. And I always wondered why the majority of students turned out to not to have a clear preference at all. Just like myself. I just thought I asked the wrong questions

    • Cindy

      Your link doesn’t work. I for one am delighted that someone questioned a concept which has been thoughtlessly shoved down our throats, and has never rung true. A good teacher does vary methods/activities frequently; it has nothing to do with so-called “styles.”

  • antoinette

    I believe they will pay attention and LEARN if they are being taught in a fashion they prefer. 

  • John Kelly

    The science of learning styles aside, as an educator, I think we too often throw around terms such as “visual learner,” “right-brain thinker,” or “relational intelligence” without every really acting on these sorts of armchair psychological observations. I think the real key is not one style or another, but variety: we all learn when we are engaged, and multiple modalities, whether via music or movement, used with variety, promote engagement.  

  • Scott

    For those defending learning styles, researchers come to these conclusions because the studies that tried to match learners with their supposed learning style did not produce superior results to groups that simply had a variety of activities. When decades of research comes up with zero, that’s a big hint for the field to move on.

    And besides, unless you are engaging in one-on-one tutoring, trying to identify the learning styles (or let’s just call them ‘preferences’) and then tailoring each day’s lesson to match all the different types of students you have is quite a task. Even if learning styles existed, for practical reasons there wouldn’t be much we could do about it in most teaching contexts.

    • http://twitter.com/robynaway Robyn Spicer

      Agreed. It would be ridiculous to think a teacher would try to match to each child’s learning styles in every lesson. That’s overwhelming and not effective use of time and often not effective for learning. I would never advocate for that. However, to make an effort to adjust your style of teaching so you hit on different preferences is not a bad thing. Students learn from a variety of different stimuli, especially in this day and age. I’m not in anyway suggesting that a teacher should create tasks to suit every learning style, but it’s not in all students’ best interests to stick to just one style because it suits the teacher or one particular group of students. Mix it up a little. The students will respond.

      I am not an advocate of placing students in one learning preference box and making them stick there. We all learn different types of skills in different types of ways. To force students to do a task in a visual way because they have been identified as visual learners is not effective if it doesn’t suit the learning objective. That’s where professional judgement comes in.

      Teaching is massively complicated, mixing up your delivery style is something good teachers consider. A professional teacher will take the well researched elements of a theory and apply them to their students and context as appropriate. To adopt anything without thought is not the mark of a well educated person. Neither is it to write it all off based on two research papers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shayne-Finch/100003204456344 Shayne Finch

    Call it what you want, but the facts in my own personal life are that my high school grade point average and my ability to take in info and understand it would indicate one thing (I Did not do well) but as I learn trades and skills as an adult would indicate another thing. How a trade is taught by a job or boss has direct results in performance and can be tracked. It is very different than school…. Would that indicate learning styles make a difference? but i’m no brain child just a guy who struggled in school but my bosses love me….who knows? certainly not me….Teach those kids Mr. Miles!!!

  • http://twitter.com/robynaway Robyn Spicer

    I think part of the argument in favour of learning styles is to get people to think about other ways of teaching than chalk and talk. Yes people can learn different things in different ways and not everything has to be suited to one’s particular learning style in order for one to learn, but by opening up this debate we are making classroom learning more engaging. You could be overwhelmingly auditory but if someone lectures to you non-stop for 6 hours a day, you are not likely to learn as effectively as you might when you had multiple modalities engaged. I can see flaws in the learning profiles approach as it can be pigeon hole students without thought, but to maintain traditional and often dull methods of instruction because you don’t buy into learning styles is probably worse. Like any educational theory, it should not be adopted without careful consideration, but I’ve seen a lot of the strategies linked to learning styles really work well to engage kids. It shouldn’t be written off because of two research articles, for I’ve seen dozens which aregue the opposite.

  • Brett Coryell

    For those who rightly note the practical difficulty of assessing individual learning styles and then tailoring instruction, individual or group, to those styles, I would suggest that we’re missing the most important promise of “how we will learn.”  

    Imagine a class where the major learning objective (and eventually the minor, and micro objectives) are all able to be delivered via multiple styles and sometimes with more than one perspective within that style.  Especially in a flipped classroom, this would allow students to select their preferred learning style and then with some assessment, determine whether they think they have mastered the concept.  If not, they can choose another perspective from the same style and try the concept again or choose a different style.

    Over time, an intelligently constructed LMS could and should begin to notice your own personal style preferences and suggest lessons for you in your preferred modalities.  This is actually easier than what Amazon and Netflix do when they suggest something new to buy or watch.

    One step further is the idea that the LMS could also assess your progress when presented with lessons in your preferred style alone as compared to when you are presented first with your preferred style and then reinforced (immediately or periodically) with other modalities.  It then could enhance your learning and retention by tailoring your raw information acquisition and concept formation by learning about you in the same way a skilled tutor would.  The difference is that “the system” can do it for everyone, whereas a teacher cannot.

    This is the future of eduction.  Skilled instructors will still have their place, but it will be in doing things that an LMS cannot, such as adapting to individual, unique, advanced, or deliciously outlandish questions.  Instructors can then leave to the LMS the things that instructors cannot do, such as repeatedly assessing and individuating instruction for 100 students.

  • http://www.kidzmet.com/ Jen Lilienstein

    A few points with regard to different aspects of this debate. First, four points excerpted from the debunking research that need highlighting:

    From Points of Clarification
    “Although we have argued that the extant data do not provide support for the learning-styles hypothesis, it should be emphasized that we do not claim that the same kind of instruction is most useful in all contexts and with all learners.” (p116)“Educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student.” (p116)“It is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way vs. another.” (p116)From Everybody’s Potential to Learn
    “It is undeniable that the instruction that is optimal for a given student will often need to be guided by the aptitude, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions that a student brings to a learning task.” (p117)Secondly, the efficacy of different learning styles is largely dependent upon the learning outcome you’re looking to achieve. Take the triathlon events. All of us CAN swim, bike and run during the race. You CAN get in shape any of the three ways. But most of us PREFER one or two of these sports to the others as our preferred methods to keep fit. It’s the same with mind muscles.I agree that in a classroom setting of 30-40 kids, it’s tough to work with these preferences which is why it works better to work all three aspects into curriculum design. But it’s not as tough in breakout groups to share tips and techniques with students of similar preferences that they can use not just with this lesson, but throughout school/life. And when developing IEPs and RTIs for struggling students, these preferences NEED to be acknowledged. From a brain perspective, we all “chunk” knowledge in different ways. And there are faster recall paths for some of us than others. When you think back to a recent vacation, what memories resurface first? How it felt? What you saw? What you heard? Inevitably, all aspects come back, but speed of recall does count…especially in timed tests.My final point is that learning styles–whether they be VAK, Multiple Intelligences, Kolb, personality type, or the litany of other models that exist–are trying to work toward a greater learning outcome than solely test scores. They’re methods to make learning more fun, inspiring and engaging for your students during class time so that they’re more likely to pursue self-directed learning during their free time…or that will give your struggling students more tools in their tool belt to understand concepts during homework when no one else is available to help them.

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  • Lisa Cooley

    When kids are passionate about what they are learning, they learn by whatever means is available.”Learning styles” is just one of those methods to get kids to learn stuff they don’t care about. It’s like a shoehorn. Anything to get that shoe on. But if it’s too tight, it’s too tight.  First find out WHO your students are and WHAT their strengths are, WHAT makes them energized and happy to be learning. Then the need to find learning styles becomes superfluous. http://mindsofkids.blogspot.com/2012/05/lay-down-burden.html

  • Strider

    but that does not make it ok to assume that the student with a different learning style, making them slower or less successful in school, is just lazy or less intelligent. i have a very different style than the style in which classes are taught at my school. this makes it extremely hard to be successful. however, i get top grades on all major tests and an IQ of 134. i also have ADHD and dyslexia. i agree that it would be ridiculous to try to teach classes to fit every type of learning style, but that does not mean it is acceptable to discount different learning styles as stupidity, laziness, or lack of intellect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maggie.lin.31105 Maggie Lin

    i think differece people will have diffrerce way to study

  • Alyssa

    Who ever wrote this is a complete and utter moron they don’t know anything about learning and to anyone who is reading this and wondering why are you even on this web sight its because my idiot teacher thought this was a great thing to do as a assignment well she ids wrong and if I didn’t need a good grade I would not do the assignment ugh

  • Cameron Godfrey

    I don’t think the idea of learning styles is really a scientific thing, but more of a preference. I prefer the “read/write” method but I know people that prefer lectures of hands-on work. I don’t think any sort of science can measure opinion at all.

  • Carey

    I agree with you. I also have a learning style and it is opposite of yours.

  • southbound32

    I think you may misunderstand Willingham’s explanation about the different between “preference” and “style”. That you like the lecture method is a “preference”. If you’re theory is right, then it’s fair to say that if one is a visual learner, then they will do poorly in a verbal environment. But according to research, this fact has never been show. In fact, the opposite has been show, that both styles succeed in one style environment. That’s one thing to think about, among many other ideas that a small article like this just can’t get to explaining.

    • lauren

      I disagree with the research in this article. I am a visual learner learners and when I get taught through different methods I just cannot take it in. For example; if I ask for directions and a person tells me them verbally, I can simply not take in the route, whereas if I take a map and they show me the way and I can easy visualise where I am going. I am not sure where they got this research from but it does not match my life experience.

      • southbound32

        That’s actually the whole point of the article and his research. You’re actually proving his point. Your preference is visual. That’s how you prefer to receive information. Not only that, but he argues that we should use the best method at aligns with the material. So, in your example, a map would be the best way since the context is about directions and route. I think you agree with this article more than you realize.

        • steve

          Give ‘visual learners’ sheet music, and ask them to keep up with ‘audible learners’ that hear the music.

          I highly guess that you’d be correct in saying which ‘style’ is best depends on medium.

  • Barry Wiginton

    I would tend to agree with others who have commented on this blog that the true argument is whether there are “learner styles” or simply “learner preferences”. I say, forget the semantics and focus on learning environments that provide the most individualized instruction possible. According to Bloom (1968) over 90% of students can mastery any subject and that it is “the basic task of education to find strategies which will take individual differences into consideration but in such a way as to promote the fullest development of the individual.” I’d say Bloom believed that students learned differently and at different rates. Whether he called it Learning Styles or Learning Preferences is of no consequence.

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED053419.pdf

  • Steve O

    I agree with the article. I think too many have focused on the idea of individual differences and interpreted that to mean that each person learns in only one unique way, which is a distortion of the learning process. Every new lesson is enhanced and set as a permanent lesson when introduced in multiple ways-irrespective of the individual differences of the learner. While repetition is key to learning, it should not imply rote and isolated from life experiences.

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  • anonomyssy

    The best learning for me is layers! First explain in verbally, then show me, then practical usage. Do it…in fact you can explain all day, and I don’t get it, until I do it…I’m the person that puts the pieces together…only looking at directions when I’m stuck…and I NEVER read them in entirety…oh but then I test as a kinetic learner…I cannot read something and understand how to do it. Thank God for Youtube and videos showing people doing things…

  • Dee Gee

    This article says that learning styles don’t matter out of one side and that learning styles are important out of the other side.

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  • Nad Ja

    Thats why I left the teaching profession. Lots of talk, excuses and explanations for one
    simple problem: kids are not forced to listen and sit still no more. I went to school in Germany and
    taught in England for years. What goes on in English education is ridiculous. The constant
    novelties, buzzwords and new methods just keep hiding the

    truth. Kids or sorry, learners I meant to say, are not properly disciplined. How do you learn to swim or to drive? To read and write? You are being shown an example and repeat it lots of times until you master it. No need to sing you a song about swimming or show you a video about doing multiplication tables if the time could be used more sensibly to just sit down and practice. Stop all this non-sense, get them to sit down, be quiet and behave. There wasnt even a projector or a CD-Player when my dad went to school but his academic skills after 10 years of schooling are better than most BA student’s.
    Chalk and blackboard all the way if you ask me.

    • halogen

      Very pleased that you are not teaching anymore

  • John McCarthy

    It’s unfortunate when learning styles are looked at with such a narrow focus, which is the case of the research and logic presented in this article. The one significant point that I’d agree is that instruction should include different modalities. This type of experience, what I’d call cross-training, or 3-Dimensional Learning gives students opportunities to process information through a variety of perspectives. Learners do learn through modalities, it’s just not one modality, nor all modalities.

    Arguments against learning styles tend to focus on the critique that students are placed in single learning containers, I’m visual, I’m kinesthetic, or I’m auditory. We have varying levels of each of these examples. Interestingly, have you noticed that the major focus of critics is on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and it’s typically on the 3 of his 9 that they life to argue, “See!” Gardner’s approach works. It works better when combined with other schools of learning styles, such as Robert Sternberg’s Triarchaic Theory of Multiple Intelligences. By the way, those critics stop going after Sternberg’s approach because they can’t argue against the field research. At least get the other side: Here’s an Edutopia article that addresses Learning Profiles: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/learning-profiles-john-mccarthy It includes strategies to manage and teach students.

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  • Tim Clark

    A “learning style” is a label and a label is a limitation.

    Encourage your students try different strategies. Try different delivery strategies yourself. Never label, never use diagnosis on your students innate qualities, only diagnose their inputs and outputs.

  • Day 416

    One flaw I see in the study cited by this article is the lack of detail or explanation of how testing was done.

    If the testing was “standardized” in it’s approach, I would tend to view the conclusion of the study flawed. Standardized testing has been shown not to reflect authentic learning.

    Further, I was not able to determine if any of the researchers have ever been educators (read: teachers), which would inform the validity of this study in my opinion.