Learning styles do not exist. Er, well — they sort of — not really, might…
Learning style theory
Learning style theory is built on the idea that we all have a primary learning style — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, verbal, etc (there are A LOT more, by the way). The theory goes one step further to propose that, if educators tailor their material to match these learning styles, learners will learn better.
If you are a learning style believer — fear not — for you are certainly not alone. A survey conducted in 2017 by Macdonald et al. demonstrated that 93% of the general public and 76% of self-identified educators believe that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.¹
Learning style theory is intuitively appealing. I consider myself a visual learner since I gravitate toward learning new material through visual media like Khan Academy, MedCram, or Radiopedia. Why wouldn’t we learn better through learning style matching?
The myth of learning styles
Well, it turns out there is absolutely no correlation between learning style matching and successful learning. Hard stop. In 2006, Massa and Mayer studied a group of visual and a group of verbal learners by providing each group with new educational material via illustrations or written text.² When tested, the visualizers and the verbalizers learned the same amount of information whether they were provided visual or verbal instruction. These findings have been replicated time and time again, study after study since the early 1970s — both in the laboratory and classroom setting. Learning style matching makes no difference — and it never has.
Neil Fleming himself, the designer of one of the most popular learning style batteries — the visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic (VARK) questionnaire — cautioned against relying on learning styles too heavily:
“I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants.³ It is the beginning of a dialogue…” Fleming goes on to say “VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”
But…I’m a visual learner!
So where does this leave us? Where does it leave me — the “visual” learner? Am I to believe I actually don’t learn well with visual media? My experience tells me otherwise. I imagine you have anecdotal evidence of your “learning style” working well for you too. There may be some confirmation bias at play here.
Rather than add fuel to the learning style debate fire, I want to uncover four truths about learning styles that we can all agree on.
1. Learning preferences are real.
I often notice a disconnect when learning style theory dissenters discuss their qualms with those who believe they have a specific learning style. For the dissenters — it seems so obvious that learning style theory is a myth rooted in folklore and intuition. For the believers — learning styles feel so real that questioning their existence feels like a personal affront.
Maybe this is just semantics? What if we instead called them learning preferences?
What all of us can agree on is that we are all different, and we all learn differently. Some of us take to material quickly, while others need more time to process new information. Some of us find that watching videos might be a little easier than reading a long text. Others may prefer simply listening to a lecture or a podcast on the topic.
While matching instruction to your learning preference is not real, the preferences themselves are indeed real — and are perfectly normal.
2. Students benefit from thinking about how they learn
You should spend time thinking about how you learn best! What is your learning preference? Are you using this learning preference as an excuse to avoid other teaching modalities? What comes easily to you? What doesn’t? Why? How did you perform on that last exam? Were you able to retain as much information as you thought you’d be able to?
Metacognition — thinking about how we think — is such a critical component of learning. Metacognitive processes uncover our strengths and weaknesses, highlight learning strategies that do or don’t work for us, and allow us to transfer our learning into new contexts.⁴
3. Your learning style does not define you
My biggest fear with learning style theory is the risk of pigeonholing our learners into specific categories that discourage effortful learning and exploration.
We often prefer learning styles that come easier to us. While this might seem like a smart and adaptive strategy, the literature shows us that effortful processing produces better and more durable learning. And this is not just a platitude. In the lab, researchers have shown that effortful learning rescues neurons in the hippocampus that were destined for cell death.⁵
By the way, who says that a so-called kinesthetic learner cannot absolutely dominate the material presented orally in a lecture setting? Skills are not fixed, unless you have a fixed mindset. If you ask Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, for those who maintain a growth mindset, intelligence can be developed in any domain.⁶
4. Educators should match learning style to the content
To my educators out there — do not be afraid of using learning styles to your advantage! It is possible and beneficial to present information in a visual, auditory, verbal, or — yes — a kinesthetic — fashion (not an exhaustive list).
The key here is that style should not be matched to the learner, but to the content.
For example: when teaching point of care ultrasound to new trainees, consider a visual style to illustrate normal anatomy; auditory style for the sound of the ultrasound battery dying before you have the chance to save your scan (yikes!); kinesthetic style for learners to feel the nuanced hand movements required to manipulate the ultrasound probe. POCUS — and many other topics — taught in a single style would leave much to be desired.
Reviving the great debate
Learning styles — or should I say learning preferences — are not to be feared. Me? I’ll still be watching Khan Academy videos — but I’ll also dive into the literature, listen to some podcasts, and see if I can figure out how to learn something kinesthetically while I’m at it.
To the learning style dissenters out there — you are right. Learning styles do not exist.
To the learning style believers out there — er, well — they sort of — not really, might…
1. Macdonald, Kelly et al., “Dispelling the Myth: Training in Education or Neuroscience Decreases but Does Not Eliminate Beliefs in Neuromyths.” Frontiers in Psychology, 10 Aug. 2017.
2. Massa, L. J., & Mayer, R. E., “Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style?” Learning and Individual Differences, 2006
3. Fleming, N., “Learning Styles Again: VARKing up the right tree!,” Educational Developments, 2006
4. Kaplan, M., et al., “Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning.” Stylus, 2013
5. Shore, T., “The Adult Brain Makes New Neurons, and Effortful Learning Keeps Them Alive.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2014
6. Dweck, C et al., “Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning.” Academic Tenacity, 2014