Archive for August, 2011


the “myth” of learning styles…

August 30, 2011

I meant to post on this many moons ago when the topic first came to my attention by way of a review in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Now, with school back in session, it seems timely again, especially because NPR had a brief piece on the topic this morning… You can check out the webpage and listen to the segment here. If the short bit here piques your interest, you can read a full review of the research that they are discussing (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork (2009) – pdf available, scroll down).

The take home message is fairly straightforward. In education, there has been a rather pervasive, and seemingly intuitive, notion that different people learn best through different forms of presentation of material. I taught high school for several years and remember the focus among my colleagues on engaging all learners, whether they are auditory or visual or kinesthetic learners, because the learning style of the child made a big difference. It came up in my teaching training, but primarily during the courses dealing with pedagogy (as opposed to those that dealt with educational psychology for example). There is a huge industry offering teacher training and curricular materials to engage with the variety of learning styles. BUT… despite the intuitiveness and pervasiveness of the idea of learning styles, there has been incredibly little empirical validation of the ideas this approach. Simply, it sounds good, but so far it doesn’t seem to be true… Caveats, of course. The Pashler et al. (2009) study does impose a rigorous bar for what should be counted as evidence for the learning styles hypothesis, so even though there has been some study of the idea, the research was not methodologically sound enough to insure the validity of the findings. Also, basic research can be difficult to equate with what happens in more applied settings (like a classroom). Finally, the conclusion that there is no evidence for the notion is not the same as “the idea is totally wrong”. It could be wrong (and given that some of the most rigorous studies found no effect of learning styles indicates that might be the final conclusion), but it can also be taken as a call to action – more research needs to be done on this topic to specify what are the benefits and what sort of gains do they provide before we spend time and money trying to accommodate different learning styles.

Final note – there is good evidence that motivated learners learn better. So, if students are motivated by different instructional approaches, we should use those different approaches. And, encountering information through different modalities (visual, auditory, tactile) can enrich the learning experience for everyone. From my own experience, the best teachers recognize that varying the ways that students engage with the material is a sound practice. So, setting aside the idea of learning styles doesn’t mean that we should embrace any singular approach to learning.

Side note – students in Cognitive Psychology this semester, please note that the NPR segment includes some comments by Daniel Willingham, the esteemed author of your textbook.