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Why You Shouldn't Teach to Students' Learning Styles

Learning styles have been popular for half a century, but they're not the amazing educational tool some still think.

I was the only 15-year-old sitting in one of the chair-and-desk combos in the classroom in the math department at the community college. Front row, front and center--my usual spot in a classroom. That day, our instructor was gesturing energetically as she explained how some students might prefer information to be presented to them in different formats. She paced in front of the chalkboard, a math-loving hippie, long pigtail braids swinging with her steps.

This was a math tutor training course, designed to train students to be math tutors at the community college for other students. As an exercise, we walked through the VARK learning styles questionnaire, and then as a class, discussed the implications of preferring to receive information in different sensory modalities and formats. How could we adapt our tutoring methods to individual students? Could we match up how we gave them information to their learning styles?

What are learning styles?

I didn't know it then, but it turns out that this practice of attempting to teach to a student's supposed learning style is a bad idea. I'll tell you why. But first, definitions:

The theory of learning styles is that there are distinct ways that different individuals learn best. People may differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them, whether that is, for example, through learning information in different sensory modalities, as I learned about in that math tutor training course (visual, audio, written words, kinesthetic activity), or any number of other taxonomies, such as preferring active versus reflective activities, or concrete versus abstract thought, or group versus individual activities.

One review discovered that over 70 different learning styles have been proposed by psychology and education researchers. They all have names like: the VARK questionnaire, the Felder-Silvermann Index, and so on—not very illuminating, but you don't need to know the differences. What.matters is that all of them share the conviction that you can classify individuals into distinct groups based on certain styles of learning, or at least based on certain preferences for learning.

In practice, as an instructor, you would give students an assessment to determine their style, usually a self-report questionnaire or survey, and you find out: are they auditory learners? Are they visual learners? Do they prefer conceptual or concrete information? And so on. Armed with that information, you would then generally attempt to adapt the presentation of material to each student's style. The hope is that if material is presented to match that individual's preferred style, then they will better learn the material. There were plenty of logistics issues when faced with a classroom of thirty students each with their own styles but in principle, that sounds great, right?

However, there's no good evidence that learning styles work.

Learning styles are incredibly popular, and have been since the 1970's, or maybe even earlier. They've been pushed on educators and by educators; isn't it critical, you may have heard, for all instructors to consider learning styles in their teaching style and lesson planning.

Even I was seduced by the idea. Years after that math tutoring class, when I was a first year Master's student looking for thesis ideas, I looked into learning styles again. I was wondering whether I could make a robot adapt a learning game to individual children's learning styles. I read a few reviews of a wide range of these learning style taxonomies. I discovered the following four facts.

1. Learning is multimodal

First. It doesn't make sense to force learning tasks to correspond to styles in some one-to-one fashion - most activities involve multiple modalities, styles, types of information, and you might even argue that people were designed to use a variety of senses, styles, from the outset. And you may actually remember material longer, and better, when it's initially harder to learn, and you have to put more effort into it—perhaps using a not-you-preferred style?

2. Preference is not aptitude

Second, a preference for information in a certain style does not equate to greater aptitude using that style. So, have a preference for, say, visual information, being a so-called "visual learner" does not imply that optimal instruction ought take that preference into account. Almost everyone who thinks learning styles should be taken into account assumes that you have to match or tailor the presentation of material to the individual's preferred style.

3. Style is not ability

Third, the learning styles literature usually conflates style with ability. Some people have greater aptitude at certain activities or sensory modalities than others—better at math, better at art, better at spatial visualization, and so forth. That's true. For example, I can much better visualize how a room will look with the furniture rearranged, or figure out how to divide up a large piece of wood into the necessary components for making a new bookshelf than my husband—but whether this reflects a difference in learning style (me visual, him not visual) or simply that I've had more practice with visual arts, or perhaps more ability in visualizing these things is unclear.

People have different abilities, but that doesn't mean they necessarily have a preference for whatever they have aptitude for. And there are several studies showing that a preference for visual versus verbal information had very little relationship to an individual's aptitude.

4. The tests aren't reliable or haven't been properly validated

Fourth, many of the learning style tests haven't been properly validated and/or aren't that reliable. Without going too much into psychometrics, this means, in short, that yhe tests may not actually measure what they intend to measure, they may not measure anything particularly useful or generalizable, they may not have been tested with a large enough group of people, they may not give you the same results when you take the same test again later, they may be statistically significant but have a very small effect size meaning they don't explain very much about people, and so on.

So … with that background, since learning styles don't work, I do not have a helpful download with a test you or your children can take to tell you how best to teach them.

But here's what does work.

Even without learning styles, there are plenty of things you can do to help children learn better. For example, one strategy is to help them develop metacognition skills. Metacognition is self-awareness of how you think and learn, the idea being that with this self-awareness, you can think and learn better.

So, for instance, if you've read this far and still really want to use learning styles, you can use them as a diagnostic assessment tool for connecting with your children. Take learning styles tests together and use the results as a prompt for conversation about how everyone learns, what you all enjoy about learning, and so on. Reflect on personality, abilities, preferences, aptitudes. Discuss strategies you use to learn different topics or different kinds of information.

For young children (and perhaps for older children too—mine are still young), simply pay attention to them and respond. Knowing each child, their personality and temperament, the kinds of things that they're curious about—that's what's going to help you help them best, and that's probably what you're doing anyway. Give them opportunities to explore topics that intrigue them through various lenses: books, videos, songs, trips to the aquarium, etc. Expose them to lots of information and activities to let them explore and see what's even possible.

From all the research I've read, it's intrinsic motivation—doing things because you want to do them, not because someone else wants you to do them, and not because you're going to get some external reward like gold stars or good grades—that will bring the most effort and energy to the table. It's curiosity about the world, it's following strengths and interests, that does the most. Give your children opportunities to pursue what they love, and they'll flourish.

Credit for this post's header image: Liz / CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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