No Such Thing as Different Learning Styles?

A couple years ago I interviewed a few neuro-psychologists and learning experts to see if they could help me understand how I learn and process information. My thinking was, kids with learning disabilities submit to a battery of cognitive tests that supposedly reveal useful information about the way they learn. Could I do the same and find out more conclusively if I'm a visual learner or auditory learner? The experts told me that it was unlikely the tests would help someone who is fine and high functioning. So I passed.

According to recent research, though, the very idea of personal "learning styles"–an idea at the center of many education philosophies–may be false. In fact, we may all learn pretty much the same way. Here's more:

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design.  Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

(hat tip: Josh Kaufman)

2 Responses to No Such Thing as Different Learning Styles?

  1. Lloyd Morgan says:

    The main problem is that this is not new, ground-breaking research. It’s just a nice set of theories that persist because they makes possible the idea of easier, more-efficient learning.

    Back in 2004 the UK’s Learn­ing and Skills Devel­op­ment Agency (an UK government agency set up to “improve the qual­ity of post-16 edu­ca­tion and train­ing”) discovered this, concluding tersely with:

    “We should stop using these terms. There’s no sci­en­tific jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for them.”

    I wrote about this briefly a few years ago ( link to lonegunman.co.uk ), but a friend of mine in the learning field wrote a much more detailed and interesting article: link to bfchirpy.com

  2. I am not advocating anything in the learning style realm here, but it seems to me that science in the medical and psychology fields doesn’t know far more than it does.

    Perhaps a case of science not yet catching up to reality?

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