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Insights

The Myth of Learning Styles: IgnitED Research Insight

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Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator

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Welcome to our ongoing series of IgnitED Research Insights, which aim to build stronger connections between learning science and instructional practice.

Did you know that learning styles do not exist? There is no evidence that shows teaching to a student’s learning style leads to better, deeper, nor longer-lasting learning. Keep reading to learn the implications this fact has for your classroom.

Are you surprised to hear that teaching to individual students’ “learning styles” don’t lead to better learning? If you would like to learn more about how this fact has implications for your classroom, join us as we bust the myth of "learning styles."

Let's Face Facts

An end view of a tall stack of hardcover, thick books.

The evidence is clear, this is no longer speculation or theory. Decades of research has shown that “learning styles” do not exist, and that teaching to a student's "learning style" does not improve their learning:

  • An, D., & Carr, M. (2017). Learning styles theory fails to explain learning and achievement: Recommendations for alternative approaches. Personality and Individual Differences 116, 410-416. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.050
  • Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

This is well-known among the research community, and researchers continue to make attempts to publicize this evidence widely:

“People do learn differently, but I think it is very important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter. If learning styles were obviously right it would be easy to observe evidence for them in experiments. Yet there is no supporting evidence.”
Daniel Willingham, Ph.D.: http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

“From a cognitive science perspective...there’s no such thing [as learning styles]. Data showing that teaching to students’ unique styles improves learning don’t exist.”
Erica Kleinknecht, Ph.D.: https://cognitioneducation.me/2013/12/09/daily-prompt-learning-style/

“... the learning styles approach is a way too simplified conceptualization of human cognition paired with misguided recommendations.”
Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, Ph.D.: http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/5/25-1?rq=Kuepper-Tetzel

Hear from a Practitioner

We talked with Jin-Soo Huh, Executive Director of Personalized Learning at Distinctive Schools, Chicago, about the implications of the evidence against learning styles and what applying this evidence looks like in classrooms.

Q: Do you think there's any harm in continuing to believe that learning styles exist?

A: I almost take it akin to the danger or myth of the "math person." That's what I compare it to. Even in the definition of reflecting and deciding that, "I guess I'm better at visual," I feel you can get a fixed mindset of, "I'm a visual learner, and if the content isn't being presented visually then I can't learn it." I feel like that can be really dangerous.

Q: What are the implications of this evidence against learning styles for practice?

A: I do feel, though, that the best teachers are always aware that this is something all students can benefit from, so they provide visuals for example, or at least have options. I can think of a second grade teacher at [CICS] West Belden who does a really good job of providing different supports to students if they want them. Students can choose them. Those opportunities to decide if it would be nice to listen to this or it would be nice to visually see it, where choices are available to students without imposing a particular "learning style" (e.g., "you are a 'visual learner' so you need to use this") reinforces to students that for some lessons visuals are helpful for them, or listening is helpful.

Q: What's your main takeaway from this evidence that learning styles do not exist?

A: I'm honestly surprised by how pervasive this notion is. I think it's something that people learned when they were kids as students in school, and so it's something I hear at parent conferences. I often hear my friends say things like, "I'm an auditory learner so this wasn't the best learning environment for me." The lack of awareness of the research -- even Gardner has publicly said this isn't the way he intended his research [on multiple intelligences] to be used -- has been the most interesting thing to me. It's been twisted, almost, into a fixed characteristic of a learner instead of thinking that there are different learning styles for different times and that everyone can benefit from these supports.

Hear the full interview with Jin-Soo Huh in this video:

Relevance to Blended & Personalized Learning

In a blended classroom, technology can facilitate differentiating and personalizing instruction for individual students - which provides each student with:

  • multiple formats, media, or different ways to engage with content,
  • opportunities for choice,
  • and also the ability to problem-solve or practice using a growth mindset when doing the work of learning.
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Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator

Saro Mohammed is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator.