Does matching teaching styles to learning styles improve learning?

Issue 02 ・ November 12, 2015

A Learning Styles Overview

The idea that teachers should match instruction to the individual learning styles of their students has dominated education for more than 30 years. Today the idea is alive and well, taken as common knowledge and also taking on different forms: More than 75 different learning style models are identified in the literature, many of which fuel a thriving commercial market. Here are a few of the most popular:

The VAK model proposes three types of learners: visual learners who learn best by seeing and reading, auditory learners who learn best by listening and speaking, and kinesthetic learners who learn best by touching and feeling. The Kolb model divides learners into four types: accommodating, diverging, converging, and assimilating. The Honey-Mumford model classifies students as activists, reflectors, theorists, or pragmatists. The Herrmann Brain Dominance model categorizes learners as theorists, organizers, innovators, or humanitarians. Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligence model currently postulates nine types of intelligence, including categories such as verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, and musical. And the list goes on, with each model proposing specific pedagogical strategies for their identified learning styles.

The principal claims of all of these models are the same: students learn differently; these differences can be objectively described, categorized, and assessed; and aligning teaching to these differences enhances learning.

The Six Claims

There is no question that students (and people generally) have differences, but the specific ways in which these differences manifest and their implications for teaching are supported to different degrees by the research evidence. The following are six claims regarding such differences, and their status according to current research:

  1. Students vary in their capacity to learn, and some of this capacity relates to general mental ability or IQ. Status: TRUE
  2. Students differ in their interests, and these differences can affect their motivation to learn certain content. Status: TRUE
  3. Students differ in their background knowledge, and these differences affect their ability to learn certain content. Status: TRUE
  4. Some students have learning disabilities—e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysphasia—and these disabilities affect their ability to learn. Status: TRUE
  5. Students have preferences about how they learn—e.g., reading versus watching video—and these preferences affect their ability to learn. Status: FALSE
  6. Students have different kinds of intelligence—e.g., visual-spatial versus musical—and these differences affect their ability to learn. Status: FALSE

There is strong evidence supporting the truth of the first four claims and they are generally considered non-controversial. The last two are the shockers. These two claims underpin learning styles research and practice, and yet there is no credible evidence supporting either of them. Students do, of course, have learning preferences, but there is no evidence that teaching to these preferences improves learning. Similarly, students do, of course, have different levels of intelligence, but there is no evidence that different types of intelligence exist, nor that teaching to these purported types improves learning.

Experimental Examples

  • Dividing verbal and visual learners, visual or verbal explanations were provided to learners as they progressed through a lesson. Results: matched conditions (i.e., verbal explanations-verbal learners and visual explanations-visual learners) performed no better than unmatched conditions (verbal explanations-visual learners and visual explanations-verbal learners).
  • Learners were tested on their learning-styles through the Visualizer-Verbalizer Questionnaire and given either verbal or visual presentations. They then performed a free-recall test of the information that had been presented. Results: there was no correlation between learning style, mode of presentation, and recall ability.
  • Learners were divided into sense learners and intuitive learners. Sense learners were first given the problem, and then the required content. Intuitive learners first received the content and then the problem. Results: neither group did significantly better than the other.

Conclusion

A lack of credible evidence that learning styles exist has led the majority of contemporary researchers to regard it as a neuromyth. Accordingly, teachers need not spend valuable time aligning their teaching to the perceived learning styles of their students. Further, reinforcing the identity of a student as a certain style of learner, or as having a specific type of intelligence, ultimately distracts both teachers and students from how people really learn.

Still Not Convinced?

The following are three short videos on the myth of learning styles:

 


Sources

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott Lilienfeld, et al., 2009, Wiley-Blackwell.

“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, 2008, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119.

“The Myth of Learning Styles” by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham, 2010, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32–35.

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates, 2013, Routledge.