Remember those pre-smartphone days of yore when you had to ask a stranger for directions whenever you got lost?

I always shied away from doing so. And not just because I was reluctant to publicly let on that I was lost – but also because I was spectacularly inept at actually taking those directions. My brain could handle a turn or two, but beyond the third, my eyes would glaze over and something in my head would shut down. Give me a MapQuest turn-by-turn printout (remember those?) and I’d be good to go – but verbal instructions pretty much fell on deaf ears.

Sound familiar? Or more specifically, have you ever noticed that it’s easier to digest new information when it’s presented to you in a certain way?

As in, perhaps you learn best if a tennis coach shows you how to hit a slice backhand. Or maybe it’s best if the coach explains the mechanics to you verbally. Or maybe you just need to do it yourself, and feel how it’s done?

This is the basic premise of learning styles theory. That a) we all learn in different ways (e.g. visual, verbal, kinesthetic, etc.), and b) we learn better when information is presented to us in a way that meshes with our preferred style.

It’s an incredibly appealing notion, and resonates with our experience. No wonder there are thousands of papers, dozens of books, and a whole range of training programs and products based on this premise. It has even found its way into psychology textbooks.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that there is virtually zero research that supports learning styles theory. Or to put it more bluntly, it appears that learning styles is a myth (cue raised eyebrows of incredulity and gasps of outrage).

What?! But…how can that be?

Two points of clarification

It all starts to make a little more sense when we take a quick moment to clarify two things.

Thing #1: Learning preferences vs. Learning styles hypothesis

It is true that we do have study preferences. When given a choice, most of us will prefer receiving instruction in certain ways (e.g. I’ll always prefer reading something to listening to a lecture of the same material). And research does bears this out.

However, the learning styles hypothesis doesn’t just say that we have preferences for how we receive information. It goes a step further and predicts that our learning will be enhanced if instruction is tailored to our preferred style (or compromised, if we don’t receive instruction in our preferred style). Which takes us to the second thing.

Thing #2: What learning is and isn’t

It’s important to note that there is a fundamental difference between how quickly we pick up things (performance), and how much of those gains actually stick and can be retrieved a day or week later (learning). The learning-performance distinction as it is sometimes called.

Sure, my daughter might be able to spell and recite a list of new French vocabulary words 10 minutes from now if we sit down together and repeat them over and over (performance), but how many will she still remember next week (learning) unless she uses a more sophisticated memory technique like elaboration or retrieval practice?

If information (or a skill) lacks durability, it can’t really be said that it’s been “learned.” So by this measure of learning, it can be very misleading to assume that we’re learning effectively just because we pick up on something quickly. How easily something comes to us, and how permanently that information or skill has been embedded into long-term memory are two very different things.

What does research need to show?

Which takes us to the research on learning styles.

A team of researchers conducted a review of the literature and established some ground rules of what a study would have to show in order to validate the learning styles premise. Specifically, it would have to:

  1. divide learners into different groups (e.g. visual learners and auditory learners),
  2. be randomly assigned to one of two learning methods, so that each group would have a mixture of both kinds of learners (e.g. visual presentation vs. auditory presentation of the same exact material),
  3. then, everyone must take the same exact test (because it would be unfair if the different learners took different tests)
  4. the test results would then have to show a clear difference between the scores of learners who were taught in their preferred style vs. those who were not taught in their preferred style. In other words, the visual learners would have to get higher scores when taught in a visual way (and lower scores when taught with an auditory method), and the auditory learners have to score higher when taught in an auditory manner (and lower when taught with a visual method).

What does the research actually show?

The researchers did an exhaustive search, but found surprisingly few studies which were set up this way. And the few that were…well, let’s take a look.

2006 study compared the performance of verbal and visual learners who were taught a lesson in either a visual-based or verbal-based style. It was a sophisticated, well-designed study, and they undertook a pretty exhaustive statistical analysis in search of some effect, but couldn’t find any difference between the performance of those whose training was matched to their preferred style, and those who were mismatched.

And then there’s a 2009 study of medical residents, where researchers thought that those with a “sensing” learning style might learn more effectively if presented with the problem to be solved before receiving the information or instruction they would need to solve it. Conversely, they hypothesized that those with an “intuitive” style would do better if they received the lesson first, before being presented with the problem. But here too, there was no difference in performance.

There are more studies like these, but you can kind of see where they’re all going…

A caveat – and some takeaways

Grr…so fine. Even if the learning styles theory is more myth than fact, what’s the harm in it?

Well, first off, we should clarify one thing. The researchers who have done comprehensive reviews of the literature aren’t flat-out saying that the learning styles theory is totally bogus. They’re just saying that there isn’t currently any evidence to support the use of learning style assessments and tailoring one’s teaching approach to these styles. Someday perhaps there may be, but not today.

In addition, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t experiment with a wide range of learning strategies both in our own practice and in our teaching. After all, if a student is more highly engaged by doing something a certain way, that’s fine, and better than trying to force-feed them information in a modality that isn’t working for them.

However, I think there is a danger in catering only to a student’s (or our own) preferred styles and strengths. It makes learning feel easier in the short term, but by ignoring weaker or less-preferred modalities, we might be stunting their growth in these areas, which could limit them down the road.

For instance, learning by ear came naturally to me, and for most of my life I learned a piece by listening to it over and over before I even looked at the score or played it on my instrument. So when I had to start learning lots of orchestra rep really quickly, or pieces for which there were no recordings, or I didn’t have time to find a recording (in ye olde pre-YouTube days), I struggled. Far more than I would have, had I not neglected the skill of learning from the score earlier in my training.

And perhaps most importantly, there is pretty solid evidence for other learning strategies that do make a difference (like these), and so our time and efforts are probably better spent by incorporating such strategies into our practice and teaching that are more well-established (yet underutilized).

The problem, of course, is that many of these strategies are not as intuitively appealing as learning styles, and make learning feel harder, not easier.

But maybe that’s kind of the point? As one of my teachers used to say, if practicing feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right!

Videos (for the auditory learner *wink*)

Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection , by Tesia Marshik

And for more fun, here’s Ben Ambridge on 10 myths about psychology: Debunked

Additional reading

A 2-min crash course on the learning styles myth: All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes

Tips and advice for parents and teachers who are bummed by the mythbusting, and want to learn about some more effective alternatives: Letting Go of Learning Styles

The excellent 2009 review of the literature (a.k.a. the roll up your sleeves and geek out option): Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence