This post is part of a learning sciences blog series debunking common myths in K–12 education. Read the introductory blog post in the series here.
Have you ever tried explaining a new concept to someone, and the person you’re speaking to suddenly replies, “Well, I’m a visual learner!” as an explanation of why they aren’t understanding? That puts you into an awkward situation. Do you grab a paper and a pen or try to verbally explain it again in a new, clearer way?
As a learning scientist, I know that we all benefit from having images along with text and that many of us can successfully follow along to news radio and storytelling podcasts. Although quite widespread, the concept that outcomes improve if instruction matches a predominant learning style is a myth. I recently dug into learning styles research to find out more, and I want to share with you some alternative approaches to tailoring to create more rigorous, aligned, motivating, and personal learning experiences.
A Look at Studies About the Learning Styles Myth
Studies have shown that at least 90% of teachers believe in the myth of learning styles: the idea that students have different learning styles—with the most popular being the visual/auditory/kinesthetic trio—and that students perform better when teachers tailor instruction to their predominant style; for instance, by delivering instruction orally for auditory learners, visually for visual learners, or hands-on for kinesthetic learners.
Survey time! Do you believe that people have specific learning styles, such as being visual, audio, or hands-on learners? 🤔 #EdChat
— HMH Learning (@LeadAndLearn) December 18, 2019
Cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia Daniel Willingham has a number of helpful explanations about why the learning styles myth seems to stick with people. Willingham explains that we have systems for auditory memory, a visual memory, and muscle memory in the brain, and one may be stronger or weaker than another. People tend to interpret this memory strength as a “predominant learning style,” and that is where we get into trouble. These strengths don’t hold up when we put meaning to the sound or image or motion that relies on other parts of the brain to hold, recall, and apply to new situations.
Perhaps because of the theory’s attractiveness, there have been a lot of studies focused on learning styles. While examining much of this available research, Harold Pashler and his colleagues found that very few of those studies used research methods that could prove causality—instead the studies explored relationships. Ironically, many of the experimental studies showed results that contradicted the myth! Looking at objective research is important because we can easily be swayed by confirmation bias, interpreting evidence from how we learn new things in a way that confirms our perceived style, and reinforcing the myth.
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