The Learning Styles Myth
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
The ‘Learning Styles’ theory suggests that we have individual preferences that determine how we learn best, and that we should be taught using our preferred ‘style’ in order to maximise our learning.
Sounds great in theory, right?
However, scientific studies are becoming increasingly critical of this idea.
But before we discuss better alternatives to ‘Learning Styles’, it is useful to get a basic understanding of what they are. There are many different categories of ‘Learning Styles’, but most include some variation of the following:
1. Learning according to sensory preference:
For example, a visual learner has a preference for images, pictures and spatial understanding. Useful study methods to learn content would include:
Mind-maps, pictures and other visual system diagrams.
Using colour pens and highlighters to emphasise words or concepts.
An auditory learner has a preference for sound and music. They may benefit from:
Listening to sound recordings related to the content being studied.
Reading notes out aloud, for example with dramatic voice intonations.
A kinaesthetic learner has a preference for using their body, hands and sense of touch. They may benefit from:
Using physical objects that can be touched, felt or held, e.g. flash cards, notes.
Focusing on the sensation of pen on paper when writing notes.
2. Learning according to thinking style:
Concrete learners prefer to use explicit facts, data and examples when solving problems. They think practically and logically before attempting to solve the problem, and then approach the problem using well-established methods. When being introduced to new content, they benefit from knowing even the smallest details to ensure that there are no gaps in their understanding.
Abstract learners prefer to use intuition and imagination when solving problems, applying concepts and rules in a more fluid way. They may take ideas or observed patterns from one domain and attempt to apply it to a different problem. They may also be able to draw analogies and relationships between concepts that others may not notice.
3. Learning according to speed and accuracy:
Impulsive learners are characterised by being able to solve problems quickly, but inaccurately. They believe that they grasp concepts quickly and skilfully, but often take shortcuts when processing new information and end up overestimating their capabilities. With practice, they learn to solve problems quickly, though their accuracy may still be less than reflective learners.
Reflective learners tend to solve problems slowly, but with greater accuracy. Although they may initially take longer to process new content, they are also more likely to spend time and effort understanding the information in order to apply it competently. Reflective learners have often been linked with possessing perfectionist traits.
Having read through the ‘Learning Styles’ outlined above, it is likely that some of us can see ourselves being portrayed quite accurately in their descriptions.
So, why have ‘Learning Styles’ gathered such a negative reputation amongst the scientific community?
The biggest criticisms of the ‘Learning Styles’ model include:
1. No correlation with learning.
The ‘Learning Styles’ refer to traits and tendencies we have as individuals, but there has been no scientific evidence to support that these significantly influence how we learn. While ‘Learning Styles’ were originally adopted from other theories in human cognition, they are being incorrectly applied to learning.
For example, though someone may have a kinaesthetic preference for perceiving the world (i.e. they process the world more through their feelings and sense of touch than, for example, what they see or hear), this doesn’t mean that they are going to be a ‘kinaesthetic learner’.
2. Neglecting skills that come less naturally to us.
By concentrating on just one or two preferred modes of learning, we neglect to improve our other cognitive abilities. Instead of just focusing on our strengths, we should devote time to developing the skills that may come less naturally to us. This helps us to enhance our cognitive abilities as a whole and gives us a wider range of tools to solve the different problems that we will be exposed to throughout our lives.
3. Nature of subject material is more important than individual preferences.
A 2006 study showed that different groups being taught the same material performed better when taught using one specific ‘Learning Style’. This led to the conclusion that the nature of the subject being taught is more important than students’ individual learning preferences.
This does make sense – for example, Mathematics may be easier to learn through practising example questions as opposed to listening to tapes on how to solve a problem. In contrast, Spanish grammar may be easier to learn through reading and making notes compared to drawing pictures and diagrams.
4. Defined inconsistently, identified inaccurately.
There are too many ways to describe ‘Learning Styles’ (over 71 different styles according to a review published in 2004). Not only are definitions inconsistent across different ‘Learning Styles’ models, but there has also been criticism towards the questionnaires being used to help students to identify their individual learning preferences. Questions may be phrased vaguely and misunderstood by students, leading to answers that don’t reflect their preferences.
As a result, the learning style recommended by the questionnaire may not be accurate for the student. In addition, any initial bias that a student has towards what they think their preferred learning style is can influence how they answer questions. As such, the result may simply confirm their initial belief about their learning style, even though their performance may prove otherwise.
Given this, what best practices can we draw by integrating the criticisms of the existing ‘Learning Styles’ model with new developments in learning theory?
1. Multi-sensory approach to learning
Instead of focusing on learning via one sensory mode, we should look over the content we are trying to learn using a combination of different sensory modes.
One of the most popular examples of this is dual coding, which involves combining verbal materials with visual materials. Presenting the same information both verbally (e.g. written notes) and visually (e.g. diagrams, infographics, charts, timelines) gives our brain two different ways of remembering it.
The more creative we get with the visual materials we design, the more likely we are to remember the information that is being described. Combining this with more-detailed text reinforces the content that we are trying to learn and allows us to recall it with greater ease and accuracy.
During my studies, when I was revising by reviewing the ‘dual-coded’ notes that I had created, I found it even more helpful to involve a third sensory mode – the auditory sense. I would speak the notes aloud, varying my volume and tone as I reviewed them. I found that using this multi-sensory approach allowed me to memorise content more effectively than if I was just re-reading the notes I had written.
2. Subject-focused learning
As mentioned, the nature of the subject being taught is actually more important than students’ individual learning preferences. We should consider what methods of learning may be best-suited to each subject before incorporating our own individual studying preferences. Some examples of subject-specific studying techniques that have worked for me over the years include:
Maths: Answering textbook/past-paper questions, explaining each step aloud as if I was tutoring another person.
Sciences: Notes combined with visual diagrams (dual-coding), reading notes aloud when reviewing, self-testing with flashcards for formulae and key definitions, past-paper questions.
History: Constructing essay plans and model essay structure for different types of questions, using dual coding (notes + timeline) to memorise content.
Geography: Dual-coding (notes + images) to memorise content (especially for physical geography processes), drawing out timelines or mind-maps to describe case studies.
Languages: Colour coding and self-testing for grammar and vocabulary, listening to audiotapes (listening exam), reciting sentences aloud when memorising a script (oral exam), drawing a ‘visual transcript’ of images that tell the story of the set of sentences that I am trying to memorise (written exam)
I recommend that you experiment with applying different revision techniques to different subjects to discover what works best for you.
For more information on how to get the most out of revision notes and past-papers check out the 10 Awesome Studying Tools & Techniques in my book.
3. Competency-based learning
Whether we have a concrete or abstract ‘thinking style’ shouldn’t be used to inform how we learn. Instead, we should consider how competent we are at the subject or module in question.
When we are exposed to a completely new and unfamiliar concept, it may benefit us to focus on developing our understanding of the concrete facts and methods that form the foundations of that concept. The more familiar we become with the fundamentals, the more capable and competent we become, and we can then begin to experiment with applying our knowledge in an abstract way.
In other words, concrete and abstract do not show two distinctive preferences, but instead reflect our level of expertise at a certain point in time. We should begin as ‘concrete learners’ when we are a novice or beginner, and then shift to ‘abstract learners’ as our competency reaches an advanced or expert level.
4. Developing all cognitive abilities
Instead of just focusing on our natural strengths (as the ‘Learning Styles’ model promotes), we should devote time to developing the skills that may come less naturally to us. As well as having benefits in studying (e.g. multi-sensory approach to learning is more effective than single-sensory learning), it also helps us to enhance our cognitive abilities overall.
This is invaluable as we make the transition from formal education to the ‘real world’, where having a wider range of well-developed cognitive skills can help us to solve the problems we encounter (whether in the workplace or in everyday life) in a more practical and effective manner.
To take advantage of this, we first need to identify our natural preferences for learning and problem-solving. In doing so, we can then become aware of the areas that need developing. It is then up to us to make a conscious decision to work on improving these abilities.
We’ll be back soon with another blog post on how to optimise your studying process to help you dominate your exams!
....but if you can’t wait until then, grab my free eBook on Overcoming Procrastination for students, where I detail why we procrastinate and the steps we can take to begin overcoming it! It’s just part of the 1st chapter of my book, The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.