There is no such thing as individual learning styles

February 7, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

One of the most widely accepted truisms in public education is that all students have individual learning styles. As a result, teachers are expected to tailor their lessons to meet the needs of the visual, auditory, and tactile-kinesthetic learners in their classes.

For example, suppose a Grade 3 teacher wants to teach her students about the solar system. According to learning styles theory, visual students should be shown lots of pictures of the planets while auditory learners benefit more from a detailed verbal description. Meanwhile, tactile-kinesthetic learners should construct models of each planet. In doing so, each student learns about the solar system through his or her individual learning style.

The theory sounds so simple and elegant. Many books and articles have been written showing teachers how to adapt their lessons to meet the learning styles of each student. However, there is just one little problem. Learning styles are a myth.

In his recent book, When Can You Trust the Experts?, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains how to test learning styles theory. Take a group of people and identify each person’s so-called learning style. Let half of them experience a story through their preferred learning style.  For example, the story could be conveyed by pictures to visual learners and recited verbally to auditory learners. Then make the other half experience the same story through a different learning style. If the theory is correct, people who experience the story through their preferred learning style should remember the story better than those who do not.

“Experiments like this have been conducted,” writes Willingham, “and there is no support for the learning styles idea. Not for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, nor for linear or holistic learners, nor for any of the other learners described by learning styles theories.” In other words, learning styles theory is no more valid than an urban myth.

Willingham is not the only expert to point it out. John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, reviewed thousands of studies about student achievement in the course of his research. In his 2012 book, Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie bluntly states there is “zero supporting evidence” for learning styles.

Catherine Scott, an Australian education researcher who has closely examined the evidence for learning styles theory, also came to the same conclusion. Her article, “The Search for the Key for Individualised Instruction,” appeared in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013) and concluded that any activities based on learning styles theory “represent a waste of precious teaching and learning time.”

Despite the lack of evidence for individual learning styles, it remains widely promoted by provincial education departments, faculties of education, and public school boards. For example, Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind, a document published by Manitoba Education in 2006, stresses the importance of identifying the individual learning styles of each student. A more recent Manitoba Education document, Strengthening Partnerships, recommends that teacher candidates be placed in a classroom environment where “teaching practices incorporate an understanding of different learning styles…”

The damage caused by this failed theory is significant. Instead of providing well-designed whole class lessons, teachers often waste vast amounts of time trying to adapt to the so-called learning styles of each student. Then at their professional development in-services, these same teachers are pushed to go even further in this direction. As a result, teachers end up working harder, getting worse results, and burning themselves out in the process.

Rejecting the theory does not mean teachers should teach every topic exactly the same way. It makes sense for teachers to use a variety of strategies when introducing students to new concepts. Going back to our example of Grade 3 students learning about the solar system, a good teacher will do far more than simply give a single lecture. Rather, she will show her students pictures of the planets, provide accurate verbal descriptions, and give students an opportunity to work with models of the planets.

Good teachers have always used a variety of strategies to engage as many students as possible. Sometimes looking at a picture is the best way to get a concept across while at other times it makes sense to let students construct a model. There is no need to pigeon-hole students into different learning styles, particularly since there is no evidence such styles exist.

Individual learning styles is a myth that should finally be put to rest.