Learning Styles: 30 Tips to Optimize Your Teaching
“You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids.” –Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology, University of Virginia
The concept of individualized learning styles has received significant criticism in recent years despite its long run of popularity. From David Kolb’s experiential theory, to Felder and Silverman’s Learning Style Index, to Honey and Mumford’s Learning Questionnaire, to the VAK/VARK model most widely used today, learning styles theory has enjoyed a long, prosperous life only to face inevitable death at the hands of psychologists and educators alike.
While a few of its foundational principles— acknowledging differences amongst students, adopting a learner-centered paradigm, considering your own learning preferences as a teacher— remain appropriate in today’s classrooms, many of its elaborate models and sub-models now face extinction. Current research highlights the empty space between the pages of three decades’ worth of literature, painting an unfortunate portrait of a theory that is sliding out from under our feet even as we continue to practice it.
What we now need is a remedial version of the old favorite, a stand-in solution, a guide for lost believers. The learning style theory is not dead—yet. But it’s not alive, either. And until it is one or the other, educators will need some way to navigate the territory in between.
Where’s the Evidence?
Many educators and educational psychologists believe that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and, furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds.
In a controversial report from the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2009), Harold E. Pashler, professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, writes, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”
The report was based on an exhaustive study of learning styles literature, aimed at finding empirical evidence for the validity of the theory. The panel concluded that an adequate evaluation of the learning styles hypothesis—the idea that optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles—required a particular kind of study. Specifically, students should be grouped into the learning style categories that are being evaluated (e.g. visual learners vs. verbal learners), and then students in each group must be randomly assigned to one of the learning methods (e.g. visual learning or verbal learning), so that some students will be “matched” and others will be “mismatched.” At the end of the experiment, all students must sit for the same test. This way, if the learning style hypothesis is correct, then, for example, visual learners should learn better with the visual method, whereas auditory learners should learn better with auditory method. Notably, other authors have reached the same conclusion (e.g. Massa & Mayer, 2006).
The panel found that studies utilizing this essential research design were virtually absent from the learning styles literature. In fact, the panel was able to find only a few studies with this research design, and all but one of these studies yielded negative findings—that is, they found that the same learning method was superior for all kinds of students.
Mr. Pashler’s study does not dispute the existence of learning styles; it asserts that no one has ever proven that a particular style of instruction simultaneously helps students who have one learning style and hinders students who have a different learning style.
In 2004, researchers at the University of Newcastle at Tyne found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research. In conducting their exhaustive literature review, Coffield and his colleagues selected 13 of the most influential models for closer study and examined the theoretical origins and terms of each model, and the instrument that purported to assess individuals against the learning styles defined by the model. Analyzing the claims made by the authors, as well as the relationship between the learning style identified and students’ actual learning, Coffield found more than a few reasons to doubt the theory. The the consistency of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all found to be “highly questionable.”
Psychologists, especially, have a bone to pick with the theory.
In the words of Susan Greenfield, learning styles are “nonsense” from a neuroscientific point of view: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison,” she says, “exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.”
Cautioning against interpreting neuropsychological research as supporting the applicability of learning styles theory, John Geake, Professor of Education at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University and a research collaborator with Oxford University‘s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain, said, “We need to take extreme care when moving from the lab to the classroom. We do remember things visually and aurally, but information isn’t defined by how it was received.”
Other criticisms of the theory include a disregard for demographics; an over-simplification of the learning process; the misrepresentation of learning as a linear process; and the restrictive ramifications of labeling students.
“There presently is no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles,” write the authors of a 2012 report entitled Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence? “Educators should instead focus on developing the most effective and coherent ways to present particular bodies of content, which often involve combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways.”
“Given the costs of assessing students’ supposed learning styles and offering differentiated instruction,” the authors add, “this should come as good news to educators at all levels, from kindergarten through medical school.”
Why Do Learning Style Studies Show Positive Effects?
“Since 2006 I have administered the Brookhaven Sensory Modality Preference Inventory survey to every student in every class I have taught either online or land based,” writes a contributor to the Regis University blog. “Learning style modality has consistently proven to be over 50% visual, 30+% kinesthetic and 2% auditory. Knowing a student’s learning style, particularly if they are a dominant auditory/kinesthetic learner trying to survive in an online environment, has been essential for a successful interaction between my students and me, especially if they experience anxiety.”
If the matching hypothesis is not well supported, then why do so many learning-styles studies show positive effects? Hundreds of studies that do not meet Mr. Pashler’s stringent criteria for experimental design suggest—at least loosely—that students do better when instructors are trained in learning-styles theory.
One possibility, writes the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that the mere act of learning about learning styles prompts teachers to pay more attention to the kind of instruction they are delivering. An instructor who attends a learning-styles seminar might start to offer a broader mixture of lectures, discussions, and laboratory work—and that variety of instruction might turn out to be better for all students, irrespective of any “matching.”
“Even though the learning-style idea might not work,” says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson.”
In other words, learning-styles seminars might be effective, but not for the reasons that their designers assume.
Consider an experiment about teaching the structure of complex molecules. The matching hypothesis might predict that kinesthetic learners would absorb the concept best by building ball-and-stick models in the lab, while verbal learners would do better by reading a few pages about the logic of molecular design.
That sounds intuitive. But according to Mr. Pashler and his co-authors, almost every well-designed study of that type has discovered that one instructional style actually works best for both groups.
What happens, Mr. Pashler says, is something like this: Experimenters randomly assign students to a classroom that uses laboratory lessons or to a classroom that uses texts. At the end of the week, students are tested on their knowledge of molecular structures.
Among the students who are taught in a hands-on laboratory setting, it turns out that the kinesthetic learners enjoy their lessons much more than their verbal peers do. They also perform better on the test at the end of the week. Let’s say that the kinesthetic students average a 95 on the test, while the verbal students’ average is 80.
That might seem like strong evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis. Not so fast, Mr. Pashler says.
Look at the second classroom, where students learn about molecules by reading texts. Here, the verbal students enjoy the lessons much more than their kinesthetic peers do. But on the test, both the verbal and kinesthetic students average around 70. The verbal students are actually better off learning this concept in a laboratory, even though they enjoy it less.
In almost every actual well-designed study, Mr. Pashler and his colleagues write in their paper, “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” the pattern is similar: For a given lesson, one instructional technique turns out to be optimal for all groups of students, even though students with certain learning styles may not love that technique.
In sum, there seems to be a difference between learning styles and learning preferences.
“There is some evidence that people who say they like to think in words (‘verbalizers’) will do so when given the opportunity, and that people who say they like to think in pictures (‘visualizers’) will do that when they can,” says Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But they don’t perform the task any better when using their preferred style than when they don’t.”
Willingham writes that there are two primary methods by which one might use science to inform practice in the classroom.
On the one hand, you can operate under the belief that scientific evidence on learning is consistent with how you teach. “Teachers inevitably have a theory–implicit or explicit–of how children learn,” he writes. “This theory influences choices teachers make in their practice. If you believe that science provides a good way to develop and update your theory of how children learn, then the harmony between this theory and your practice is one way that you build your own confidence that you’re teaching effectively.”
It would seem, then, that if you don’t see the scientific proof for a theory, you shouldn’t practice that theory. But it’s not that simple.
“It’s possible to have effective practices motivated by a theory that lacks scientific support. For example, certain acupuncture treatments were initially motivated by theories entailing chakras–energy fields for which scientific evidence is lacking. Still, some treatments motivated by the theory are known to be effective in pain management.”
Which leads us to the second method: Although learning styles theories are not accurate representations of how students learn, they are not necessarily going to lead to bad practice. However, it is advisable to use them as inspiration, not a guide.
“In talking with teachers, I think this second method is probably more common. Teachers treat learning styles theories not as sacred truth about how children learn, but as a way to prime the creativity pump, to think about new angles on lesson plans.”
The bottom line? Learning styles theories might serve as inspiration for practice, but they hold no special status as such. Anything can inspire practice.
With that, I’d like to propose 30 tips for using spinning the old learning styles theory into a more suitable arrangement for today’s classrooms:
- Match your instruction to the content you are teaching. There is no need to waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in your classroom (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?). Instead, concern yourself with matching your instruction to the content you are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.
- Match your instruction to your students’ prior knowledge. We often use prerequisites to ensure common background knowledge of students in a given class, but assessment at the beginning of a class can be an excellent reminder of how little of the prerequisite course content is easily recalled.
- Use learning styles theory as inspiration, not a guide. Again, although learning styles theories are certainly not guaranteed to lead to bad practice, using them as a guide is more likely to degrade practice than improve it.
- Bring your own learning style into balance. Your preferred teaching and communication methods may in fact be influenced by your own learning preferences. For example, if you prefer visual rather than verbal learning, you may in turn tend to provide a visual learning experience for your students. Be aware of your preferences and the range of preference of your audiences. Provide a balanced learning experience by taking the time to identify how you prefer to learn and then forcing yourself to break out of your comfort zone. Once you start learning in new ways, you’ll be amazed at how much more you catch and how much easier it is to assimilate information and make sense of what is going on.
- Bring your students’ learning styles into balance. Speaking at a workshop about the impact of neuroscience on society at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience, Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol pointed out that some research actually suggests that children learn better when presented with information in a way that takes them out of their “comfort zone.”
- Lead your classes through a full learning cycle. Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full “learning cycle,” without regard to their students’ particular styles.
- Don’t believe everything you hear… about the brain. Last year, Howard-Jones and his colleagues set out to investigate teachers’ general knowledge about neuroscience, and to determine the prevalence of myths and misconceptions about the brain in education. The researchers contacted 242 teachers in the UK and Holland, asking them to complete an online survey containing 32 statements about the brain, and to indicate whether each one was true or false. They found that the concept of learning styles was the most prevalent misconception: 82% of the teachers in their sample believed that it is true, even though there’s no brain research to back it up. The results also showed that belief in neuromyths was correlated positively with general knowledge about the brain – that is, the more general knowledge a teacher has the more likely they are to believe that myths and misconceptions about the brain are true. This suggests that although teachers have a growing interest in neuroscience and how it might be applied to education, they have difficulty distinguishing between correct and incorrect information about the brain.
- Don’t confuse skills with styles. Ability is what you can do. Style is how you do it. One would always be happy to have more ability, but different styles should be equally desirable. Two basketball players may be of equal ability but have different styles on the court, one being a risk-taker and the other quite conservative in his play. Sometimes people say it’s obvious that there are learning styles because blind and deaf people learn differently. This is a difference in ability, not style.
- Don’t confuse preferences with styles, either. A favorite mode of presentation (e.g. visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) often reveals itself not to be a style of learning but a preference for tasks for which one has high ability and at which one feels successful.
- Use learning style web tools to determine skills and preferences. The website College@Home has an excellent list of 100 Helpful Web Tools for Every Type of Learner.” Although they are divided into categories for Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic learners, you can use them to teach specific material more effectively or to support your students’ skills and learning preferences.
- Use learning style and personality tests to determine skills and preferences. Australian educator Maryna Badenhorst runs a website called Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age with an impressive list of “learning style” tools, including quizzes to find your learning style and personality type, lesson plans for multiple intelligences, and information about learning styles. Just mentally substitute the term “preference” every time you read “style.”
- Use “learning styles” to promote interest, not retention. As there is little evidence that catering to preferred learning styles actually enhances learning, cater to your students’ preferences instead in order to enhance their interest. If a student is enjoying the medium in which she is engaged, she will enjoy the learning, which will in turn motivate her to continue learning.
- See beyond the confirmation bias. Learning-styles theory has succeeded in becoming “common knowledge.” Its widespread acceptance is a compelling but misleading reason to believe it. This is further fueled by a well-known cognitive phenomenon called “confirmation bias”: when evaluating our own beliefs, we tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and ignore information that doesn’t, even when we encounter it repeatedly. When we see a “visual learner” excel at geography and an “auditory learner” excel at music, we do not seek out the information which would disprove our interpretation of these events (can the auditory learner learn geography through hearing it? Can the visual learner become better at music by seeing it?).
- Emphasize the context, not the individual. In a recent poll of American undergraduate students, 90 percent of respondents endorsed the belief that “people have their own learning styles.” This belief has the potential to shape and constrain the experience that students have in the classroom. For example, if a student believes she is a visual learner and therefore disengages and daydreams when a lecturer turns off the PowerPoint and tells a story, this will prevent her from learning the concept through a compelling narrative. And while these beliefs may not have as direct an impact on performance reviews as they do in K-12 settings, a belief in learning styles occasionally shows up in student evaluations of teaching: “I am a visual learner, so the visual examples were good,” or “I am an auditory learner, so more auditory content would have helped.”
- Use digital media to enhance your topic, not to address different learning styles. While including multimedia may be a good idea in general (variety in modes of presentation can hold students’ attention and interest, for example), it is not necessary to tailor your media to different learning styles. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves for showing a video to engage the visual learners or offering podcasts to the auditory learners. Instead, we should realize that the value of the video or audio will be determined by how it suits the content that we are asking students to learn and the background knowledge, interests, and abilities that they bring to it. Rather than asking whether we engaged the right sense (or learning mode), we should be asking, what did students think about while they were in class?
- Remember that multi-modal learning enhances memory. It has long been known in the field of psychology that learning a concept in multiple ways (visually, verbally, kinesthetically, etc.) helps you remember it better. In the words of neurologist Judy Willis, “The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is. This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned, rather than just memorized.”Pigeon-holing students into particular learning categories counteracts this effect.
- A quick fix is never the solution. “The learning styles phenomenon can partly be explained by the fact that it has coincided with the government’s push for ‘personalized learning,’” reports the UK-based educational resource, TES. “Even so, many educationists are baffled as to why the concept has been embraced so enthusiastically. It’s not just schools that have been buying into the learning styles revolution; big corporations have also been building up profiles of their employees using VAK-style assessments. Part of the appeal may be that it seems to offer a quick fix, with the promise that a simple questionnaire or two is all that’s needed to give teachers an insight into how to reach a difficult or underachieving student.” Clearly this has never worked, and will never work.
- Don’t mistake the environment for the mode. Dr. Pat Bricheno, a research associate in education at Cambridge University, is investigating the impact of a learning styles approach on classroom attitudes. Initially, her interviews seemed to suggest that all children, boys and girls alike, preferred kinesthetic learning. “But it’s not that straightforward,” she says. “On closer questioning, it turned out that most of the kinesthetic activities were done in groups, and what pupils actually enjoyed was working with other people, not the activity itself.”
- Aim for the long term, not the short term. The learning styles method is designed for immediate effectiveness—diagnosis and treatment. But what students really need is to develop skills that will last them throughout their career. Is the aim to make short-term learning as easy as possible, or is it, over time, to develop complete learners with a range of skills that can be adapted to all situations?
- Keep it a theory. While it may not work in practice, the learning styles theory is a great topic for classroom discussion and individual reflection. “The fact that teachers are starting to think about things from the learner’s end has to be a good thing,” says Professor Guy Claxton at the University of Bristol. “And if you’re also getting students to think about how they learn, then that’s another big step forward.”
- Maintain the variety. Most teachers know that watching a video clip, then moving into discussion, then following that with a practical activity, all makes for a more interesting lesson than if they just stand at the front and talk. The reason that VAK works well may have less to do with its own effectiveness and more to do with the proverb about variety being the spice of life. “It has at least made teachers look at themselves and say ‘perhaps I sometimes do too much talking,’” says Dr. Bricheno. “There may be no such thing as different learning styles, but different teaching strategies certainly do exist, and teachers who have a wide range of strategies can increase the levels of engagement among their pupils.”
- Ask for feedback from your students. Rather than assessing how your students learn before you teach a lesson, ask them how much they learned or how interesting they thought the exercise was afterwards. You can lead a discussion or administer a questionnaire, whatever works best. The last thing you should fear as an educator is asking your students’ opinions—especially when it comes to their own learning.
- Don’t forget about similarities. Willingham suggests it might be more useful to figure out similarities in how our brains learn, rather than differences. And, in that case, he says, there’s a lot of common ground. For example, variety. “Mixing things up is something we know is scientifically supported as something that boosts attention,” he says, adding that studies show that when students pay closer attention, they learn better. And recent studies find that our brains retain information better when we spread learning over a longer period of time, say months or even a year, versus cramming it into a few days or weeks.
- Style should not outweigh background. If you label the student a visual learner who uses his iPad to take photos for a class project, but label the student a verbal learner who presents without a visual display, you may be making a grave mistake: Who’s to say the second student wasn’t the most visual learner in the class but simply couldn’t afford a digital device?
- “Style” may apply better to assessment than to learning. One area that should also be explored in further research on learning styles theory is that of assessment. It is possible that recalling information and demonstrating understanding of a topic may be better complimented by the VARK model than the learning process itself.
- Treat research as a proposal, not a prescription. Just as the science of medicine need not undermine the expertise of a doctor, the science of psychology need not invalidate practice-based knowledge, but rather supplement it with general information about theories of the mind and learning, without direct prescriptions for what to do in a certain classroom situation.
- Focus on mutually reinforcing methods. In keeping with the full learning cycle method, you should take care to demonstrate the inter-modality of learning to your students. Demonstrate or explain how the same concept can be expressed—and understood— visually, aurally, kinesthetically, etc.
- Information isn’t defined by how it is received. Echoing the words of John Geake, it can be dangerous to measure, define, or manipulate learning by how it is received. A student will still learn the material regardless of whether or not it is delivered through scatter plots, ballroom dancing, or textual analysis. To deprive a student of any piece of information because of the mode in which it exists would be to grossly oversimplify the inner workings of the human brain.
- Do whatever works best for you. Countless educators use learning styles theories in their classrooms every day, and wouldn’t know what to do without them. Even if one success story doesn’t prove a theory, it can still change a life.
- Share your experience with other educators. Whether you agree or disagree with these statements, or end up changing your mind weeks or years down the road, be sure to make your voice known. The greatest—and simplest— thing you can do to further this debate is to share your own observations, thereby lending credence to current research.