Are learning styles dead?

If you’re in education you’ve likely heard things about different “intelligences”: Bodily-kinesthetic, Visual-spatial, Verbal-linguistic, and so forth. You may have also heard about the necessity to change one’s teaching to accommodate the different learning styles. For example, a class proving the Pythagorean theorem might justify it once as a flip-book animation (to accomodate the Visual-spatial and Kinesthetic intelligences) and once as written prose (to accomodate Logical-mathematical and Verbal-linguistic intelligences).

I was therefore startled by this comment in a Tom Henderson interview:

I don’t know if you saw the article I posted here at Technoccult a few weeks back, but it looks like the whole “learning style” thing is complete bunk.

So, are learning styles dead? Is this yet another failed education idea to toss onto the pile?

Well, sort of.

I traced the links back to their source, and came across this (publically available) journal article entitled Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, which includes the following:

The most common—but not the only—hypothesis about the instructional relevance of learning styles is the meshing hypothesis, according to which instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preferences of the learner (e.g., for a “visual learner,” emphasizing visual presentation of information).

The article isn’t addressing the idea of learning styles as a whole, but rather the idea that one can “teach to” the different learning styles with different methods.

This was a meta-study, which surveyed the literature on learning styles searching for scientifically verified studies. What the researchers found is very few studies of the studies done count as scientific:

To provide evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis—whether it incorporates the meshing hypothesis or not—a study must satisfy several criteria. First, on the basis of some measure or measures of learning style, learners must be divided into two or more groups (e.g., putative visual learners and auditory learners). Second, subjects within each learning-style group must be randomly assigned to one of at least two different learning methods (e.g., visual versus auditory presentation of some material). Third, all subjects must be given the same test of achievement (if the tests are different, no support can be provided for the learning-styles hypothesis). Fourth, the results need to show that the learning method that optimizes test performance of one learning-style group is different than the learning method that optimizes the test performance of a second learning-style group.

In essence, here would be a successful experiment:

A random group of subjects is tested for learning style. They are divided into two groups, A for the auditory learners, V for the visual learners.

The groups are further divided (randomly and with double-blind conditions, so the experimenters who have direct access to the subjects don’t know which group is which) into subgroups A1, A2, V1, V2.

Groups A1 and V1 are taught a lesson auditorially.

Groups A2 and V2 are taught the same lesson visually.

All groups are then tested.

Auditory learners taught auditorially (A1) do better than the auditory learners taught visually (A2).

The visual learners taught visually (V2) do better than the visual learners taught auditorially (V1).

The Learning Styles paper includes a graphical explanation:

Of the surveyed papers that met this criterion:

. . . we have been unable to find any evidence that clearly meets this standard. Moreover, several studies that used the appropriate type of research design found results that contradict the most widely held version of the learning-styles hypothesis, namely, what we have referred to as the meshing hypothesis (Constantinidou & Baker, 2002; Massa & Mayer, 2006).

However, the study emphasizes that this is just the current state of the research, but that:

Future research may develop learning-style measures and targeted interventions that can be shown to work in combination, with the measures sorting individuals into groups for which genuine group-by-treatment interactions can be demonstrated. At present, however, such validation is lacking, and therefore, we feel that the widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.

In other words, the meta-study did not debunk learning styles so much as debunk the current research and industry built around them, but that does not preclude the possibility (which hasn’t been well-tested enough) that some sort of learning style individuality may help.

Source:
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3), 105-119 DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

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9 Responses

  1. A while ago I came across this video on “Learning Styles Don’t Exist” by Dan Willingham where he reaches a similar conclusion. He clarifies it a bit further in this response.

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve wondered several times recently what the actual research on learning styles was, and I’m sure this paper will prove very interesting to read (when I have time, which sadly might not be until the summer now!).

  3. My take away from the Willingham video (and reinforced by this) is that teaching to a particular learning style is misplaced, but providing the same lesson via a number of different modalities, to all students, allows them to reinforce and expand their understanding.

    Of course, i have no research to back that idea up.

  4. The summary version I’ve read in a recent Educational Psych text is that Gardner’s version of multiple intelligences has no real support to back it up and isn’t taken seriously as psych research. (Don’t have the book on hand but I can dig it up later if you’re interested.)

    My mostly-intuitive take on things is that multiple intelligences is crazy-talk, but it’s crazy-talk that has motivated useful change – namely, diversifying how we teach, finding new ways to make things relevant and accessible to students, and recognizing diversity in our students. So I don’t take it too seriously and try to keep those end goals in mind instead.

  5. re:Joshg: Gardner’s version is different than this discussion. Gardner’s version has to do with aptitudes, not learning.

    I think on Ed Weekly there was a discussion on this awhile back as well. My take wasn’t so much that Learning Styles don’t exist, the problem is that saying, “This person is a visual learner, they will learn all things better visually” was bunk (or at least, not supported by evidence). What was true was that certain domains are best learned in certain styles, like geometry is best learned visually.

    Side note: One of the study authors (Hal Pashler) was one of my profs in college. He didn’t really stick out one way or another so I’m going to maintain that I’m not biased here.

    As Jason says, it’s not so much that differences don’t exist, it’s the foundations that the Learning Style Industry is built upon that’s the problem.

  6. Do some research on Professor Chris Jackson’s model of learning which is theory driven, evidence based and with published results in the academic literature. He has developed a “Hybrid Model of Learning in Personality” and uses the Learning Styles Profiler to measure functional and dysfunctional learning.

    You can find out more about it at http://www.cymeon.com

  7. I’ve always wondered about learning music visually, math kinesthetically, hand’s on science auditorally…?

    Jonathan

  8. Academia fails to make the difference between knowledge retention and true understanding – regularly.

    Study design and meta analysis need be carefully considered before conclusions like this can be drawn – or undrawn.

    The test for this theory is experiential – interview training professionals, interview trainees talk with grandma. We all know someone who “needs a picture” or “needs a story” to make information come alive. This basic marketing stuff and it is proven in the field of business very visibly.

  9. Is the journal article available online for free? I clicked your link that says it is available publicly but it requires a journal subscription.

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