Debunking Learning Styles

There has always been something suspicious to me about “learning styles.” As teachers, we are supposed vary our delivery, so that each student can learn through the style that works best for the individual. The idea seemed too simple, and it seemed that it did not really explain what I observed with my students.

“Learning styles” has been on my “to research” pile for a few years now, and it finally made it to the top of the pile. I found a dozen articles from peer-reviewed journals, and spent free time reading them (and taking notes in the margins—notes made in pencil, I am that old).

The articles, which debunk “learning styles” all seem to provide similar arguments:

  • Leaners are different. We all have differences in abilities, interests, backgrounds, and these differences affect how we approach lessons, how we interact with curriculum, this how we learn.
  • If learning styles were a “real thing,” then we would expect to see differences in how individuals learn when we use their self-reported learning style. We do not see this effect in controlled settings.

It appears we (as a collected group of professional educators) should stop planning for (and telling ourselves and our students about) different learning styles. We will do better if we spend our time:

Improving students’ abilities. Helping them adopt the growth mindset and giving them experience to develop non-cognitive variables are examples of actions that improve persistence and executive function that are positively associated with improved academic performance.

Making curriculum more interesting. Focusing studies around relevant problems and maintaining the complexity of real-world situations as we build classrooms dedicated to authentic learning increase students’ perceptions that the curriculum matters.

Addressing deficits in background knowledge. Teachers know that some students arrive in classrooms with little experience outside their towns and with little exposure to books and other tools that give background experience. Field trips, well-stocked libraries, and time to read and explore unfamiliar topics are all strategies for enhancing and extending this foundational knowledge.

Expanding modalities without reference to learning styles. The English teacher (for example) who supplements readings of Shakespeare with live action performances and who has students perform scenes themselves is diversifying the methods in a manner that helps all learners learn.