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No Evidence for Learning Styles

Over the past couple of decades that I’ve been involved in educational professional development, one of the key concepts pushed has related to learning styles. This is the idea that some kids are verbal learners while others are visual types and still others kinesthetic and that we need to adjust our instruction specifically to reach each of those groups.

However, on a short segment from NPR’s Morning Edition today, several psychologists have looked at the research behind the theory of learning styles and found no basis for saying that teachers should tailor their instruction to different kinds of learners.

When he reviewed studies of learning styles, he found no scientific evidence backing up the idea. “We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these,” he says, “and until such evidence exists, we don’t recommend that they be used.”

While the research may or may not be valid (always read any research, especially involving humans, with a large dose of skepticism), I still believe that both kids and adults have styles of learning they prefer and are most comfortable with. It doesn’t mean they can’t learn any other way, just that they would rather not, given the option.

However, that doesn’t mean we should specifically adapt instruction for each group of learners. Instead we should be teaching our students how to adapt their learning abilities to the different situations that they’re likely to encounter throughout their lives. Certainly how to read a book, but also how to consume and understand other types of media, as well as how to create them.

Late in the piece, one speaker notes that, while there’s no research to back up the concept of learning styles, there is plenty of evidence showing that using a variety of approaches and regularly changing instructional styles, does benefit all students.

Which only makes sense since I learned early in my career that teaching the same way all the time is boring, both for the kids and for me.

1 Comment

  1. organized chaos

    The research showing that learning styles are a myth has been around for years, and it’s been done by numerous people. Yet it really never gets out there to teachers, and when it does, teachers go crazy. At a conference last fall I thought a speaker was going to be trampled by the 1,000+ teachers yelling at her for daring to say that learning styles are a myth.
    The reason they work in our eyes is exactly what the speaker you mentioned said- presenting information in different ways is key to the learning process. There is research out there on the importance of repetition and how repetition helps information get into our long-term memory. Teachers who think they are meeting the different modalities are usually just repeating information in a variety of ways until their learners truly have the information stored in their long term memory, and not their working memory.
    So although learning styles themselves have been shown to be a myth, teaching with them usually does provide pretty good results.

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