Mythbusters: A review of research on learning styles
Every learner is unique.
No one disagrees with this statement. Yet our strong commitment to learner individuality can sometimes mislead us into accepting educational claims that sound intuitively plausible but lack supporting evidence. For example, the often-heard assertions that some students are left-brained and others right-brained, or that today’s “digital natives” learn in fundamentally different ways than prior generations. Unfortunately, learning myths like these hinder progress in education and distract educators from instructional strategies demonstrably shown to improve learning.
In this blog I discuss one particularly resilient and appealing myth: instruction should be matched to students’ different learning styles. Although the topic of learning styles has been a popular target for criticism in recent years, it is so entrenched in popular educational thought that a review of the available research remains a worthwhile exercise.
Now theories of learning styles rest on two fundamental claims. First, there exist identifiable and robust learner preferences for perceiving or processing information that can be used to classify individuals into distinct learning style groups. The detection of learner preferences is typically achieved through self-report questionnaires that query learners about the instructional methods or modalities they believe enable them to learn best. A vast catalog of learning style taxonomies exist in the literature with some (e.g., VAK, Kolb, and Dunn & Dunn) more familiar than others.
Each of these distinct theories emphasize different attributes or dimensions along which learner preferences are claimed to meaningfully impact instructional efficacy. Examples include learning styles based on sensory (verbal/auditory/kinesthetic), social (individual/collaborative), and cognitive (sequential/holistic thinker) preferences. One research group identified 71 distinct learning style theories in their comprehensive review of the literature (Coffield et al. 20).
The second claim underlying theories of learning styles is that students learn most effectively when instructional methods are tailored to their preferred learning style and less effectively otherwise. Learners that prefer receiving information in a visual modality, for instance, are said to learn most successfully when they experience instruction emphasizing images and less well when instruction relies primarily on verbal explanations (Kirschner and Merrienboer 174). This second claim, which links the identification of learner styles to improved learning outcomes, is critical for establishing the value of learning styles in education.
Together these two claims have been referred to as the style-matching or meshing hypothesis (Pashler et al. 108). Establishing the legitimacy of learning styles depends on finding evidence to support the style-matching hypothesis. If learning styles are an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes then we should see evidence that matching learners to instructional methods tailored to their learning style improves learning outcomes compared to learners instructed in methods contrary to their preferred style.
So is there research to support the style-matching hypothesis?
Research on learning styles
An initial survey of the voluminous research literature on learning styles appears to support its efficacy in education; thousands of articles and books have been published on the topic in recent decades. However, a closer examination reveals that a much smaller number of these articles have been published in peer reviewed journals, prompting researchers to note that the majority of academic work on learning styles is done “under the radar” of legitimate scholarly critique (Lilienfeld et al. 95).
A number of efforts to evaluate the massive literature on learning styles have been carried out in recent years by distinguished research teams. And the overwhelming conclusion of scholarly reviews is that available studies have almost universally failed to employ the type of research design required to substantiate the style-matching hypothesis. As a result, there is a shocking lack of evidence to support the core learning styles claim that customizing instruction based on students’ preferred learning styles produces better learning than effective universal instruction. Consequently, the learning styles research literature is weak and unconvincing despite its vastness (Rohrer and Pashler 634).
For example, in one review of learning styles research, conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association, a team of researchers were able to locate only a handful of studies that met the design requirements to substantiate the style-matching hypothesis and, apart from one methodologically questionable study, all findings from these studies were negative (Pashler et al. 112). Similarly, Coffield and associates conclude after an exhaustive examination of the available literature that learning styles researchers systematically fail to employ the type of experimental design required to justify their claims of pedagogical improvement (61). The conspicuous absence of adequate empirical support for the efficacy of using learning styles in education is a conclusion that has been consistently echoed by researchers investigating the topic (see, Arbuthnott and Kratzig; Kavale and Forness; Lalley and Gentile; Scott; Stahl).
Although these reviews highlight the lack of historical support for theories of learning styles, it might be wondered whether the style-matching hypothesis has any greater validity in the modern context of computer-based instructional environments.
In one carefully designed study to investigate this question, Massa and Mayer found no support for the style-matching hypothesis with respect to verbal/visual learners in a series of computer-based training lessons. Additional research investigating the impact of allowing participants in a computer-based setting the ability to select the modality of instructional presentation based on their learning style (visual/verbal) also found no effect on learning performance (Kollöffel). Finally, in a study utilizing web-based learning modules researchers found no evidence that matching learners according to their sensing/intuitive Felder-Silverman learning style had any effect on learning outcomes (Cook, Thompson, Thomas, & Thomas). Negative findings such as these are typical of research properly designed to explore the existence of any interaction between learning styles and instructional methods.
Moving on from learning styles
So what conclusion should be drawn from the available research on learning styles?
The view of most educational researchers, as Hattie and Yates note, is that learning styles is simply a non-productive area of research with respect to improving learning and instruction (176). It is for this reason that Pashler and colleagues end their comprehensive report on learning styles with the conclusion that “the widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources” (117). Less generous researchers, lamenting the continued popularity and influence of learning styles in education despite the lack of evidence, simply refer to learning styles as an unfortunate “urban legend” of educational psychology and widespread “neuromyth” (see, Geake 124; Kirschner and Merrienboer 179; Lilienfeld et al. 96).
Ultimately, until proponents of learning styles can provide adequate experimental support for the style-matching hypothesis, it is impossible to recommend learning styles as an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes. Instead, educators should focus their time and energy adopting instructional strategies with strong evidentiary support that are consistently found to benefit to all learners (for examples, see Arbuthnott & Krätzig; Dunlosky et al.)
Where can I learn more?
This paper has focused primarily on research evaluating the style-matching hypothesis; however, theories of learning styles have been criticized on several additional fronts. The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham argues that theories of learning styles are based on a conceptual confusion and demonstrate a lack of understanding of how the brain works. Critiques of the validity and reliability of the self-report measures employed by learning style models can be found in Duff and Duffy, Stahl, and Veenman, Prins, and Verheij. For a broader criticism regarding the lack of effort among learning styles advocates to develop a common conceptual framework and the pervasive influence of commercial interests see Coffield et al. (54-55).
About the Author
Jay Lynch has worked at Pearson since 2011. He earned his PhD and MA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his BA at the University of Arizona. Jay has publications in both educational theory and philosophy. His research interests span the field of the learning sciences and he is particularly interested in the topics of desirable difficulties and improving research methodology in education. Jay also has several years of experience applying learning research in the design and development of online courses.
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