If Not Learning Styles Theory, Then What?

Learning Styles
As of the last major literature review in 2008, there’s still very little evidence that people learn best when information is processed according to their purported “learning style.” Individuals may have preferred thinking styles, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, but these don’t serve them when the processing method (e.g. visual) doesn’t match up to the task at hand (e.g. verbal).

“The data show that people do have some propensity to use one or another mode of thinking, but people would be better off if they didn’t; rather, they should use the mode of thinking that’s a better fit for the task at hand.”

In the Summer 2018 edition of American Educator, Willingham takes this theory a step further.

Departing from the traditional notion of fixed styles or abilities, he proposes that maybe it’s not the individual that the learning style depends upon but rather the task at hand. Maybe we all have more cognitive flexibility to switch between styles than we’re giving ourselves credit for. Maybe we just need to adopt different approaches for different kinds of information.

There’s convincing evidence to back this up.

In a recent study, researchers asked participants to navigate virtual cities. They found that people who self-identified as verbal learners showed better memory for landmarks, but people who self-identified as visual learners made more accurate judgments about the relative directions of city features.

In a second part of the study, the researchers instructed people to “act like a verbalizer or a visualizer.”

“People were able to follow these instructions,” Willingham says, “and the results matched what happened when they let people process as they pleased: thinking verbally helped with landmarks, and thinking visually helped with direction.”

In other words, the effect of the instruction overrode the preferred learning style when it came to performance.

Learning and memory are best enhanced by intention.

Willingham explains in the context of a study where participants were asked to memorize sentences:

“Even if you’re a verbalizer, if you’re trying to remember sentences, it doesn’t make sense for me to tell you to verbalize (for example, by repeating sentences to yourself) because visualizing (for example, by creating a visual mental image) will make the task that much easier. Making the task more difficult is not a good strategy for motivation.”

Instead, if we guide students to process information in the way that’s best suited to the task at hand, they’ll perform better. We should be giving ourselves more credit as far as cognitive flexibility goes, and thinking in terms of task styles, or at least not fixed learning styles but task-dependent learning styles.

To sum up the current status of learning styles theory and its more accurate task-dependent counterpart, Willingham offers 5 conclusions:

  1. Since the last major literature review in 2008, more experiments have been conducted to measure whether participants learn better when new content fits their purported learning style. The bulk of the literature shows no support for style distinctions.
  2. There is emerging evidence that people have a propensity to engage in one style of processing over others. Only a few learning styles theories have been tested this way, but there seems to be pretty good evidence for the idea that verbalizers and visualizers are biased to process information in their preferred style, and that people may be biased toward either reflective or intuitive thinking. These biases are not very strong, however.
  3. The type of mental processing people use often has a substantial effect on task success. Reflective thinking is much better than intuitive thinking for probability problems. Imagery is much better than verbalizing for sentence memory.
  4. People can control the type of processing they use. Someone may prefer to think intuitively when solving a problem, but they can think reflectively if something in the environment prompts them to do so, or if they recognize it’s the type of problem best addressed that way.
  5. There’s no evidence that overruling your bias in this way incurs a cost to thinking. In other words, visualizers may be biased to use visual imagery, but when verbalizers use it, they are just as successful at solving problems.

It appears that the “style” part of learning styles is best leveraged as a tool, not an inherent ability. Optimal learning occurs when we use visual, verbal, auditory, or kinesthetic learning as a compliment to the task at hand. Educators would be remiss to continue on a path that not only pigeon-holes students as having fixed abilities, but also has no grounding in real research.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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