We’re all familiar with the idea of learning styles –- some of us are visual learners, while others learn best when reading or writing. It’s a common idea — one review of the literature found over thirty different systems of classifying learners, each with their own lists of categories — and a comforting one. It suggests that when we don’t learn something easily all we have to do is try a different style, and that educators can better serve a wider variety of students by simply changing the format of what they’re teaching.
It’s just a shame it isn’t true.
Learning styles are like chupacabras, in that we can’t agree what they look like and, if they’re real, we’ve never caught one. We wouldn’t have over thirty different sets of little pigeonholes to drop students into if we had. Tests and instruments designed to identify someone’s learning styles routinely fail basic tests of reliability. In other words, if you take three different tests, you’ll likely get three different results. Worse, you’ll still get different results if you take the same test on three different days. If people have aptitudes for specific styles of learning, we haven’t found them.
Most attempts to identify learning styles don’t even try. Instead, they rely on having learners choose what type of learning they like best. “Would you rather read about this concept or see a visual explanation of it?” Even measuring these preferences is ridden with issues: people change their preferences from day to day, and students often report their favorite way of studying is one which objective monitoring shows they almost never engage in.
At least we can tailor our learning and teaching to how people prefer to learn, though -– right? Nope! Most research finds that people’s preferences on how they like to learn don’t have anything to do with how they learn best. As a matter of fact, when people are allowed to learn in the style they like the most, often they seem to do worse. If you imagine what would happen to your diet if you only ate the food you liked the most, you can easily see why. R.E. Clark termed this “mathemathantics” – from the Greek roots for “learning” and “death.” Satisfying learning preferences generally leads to lower retention of material, performance on assessments – even lower enjoyment of the class itself!
Why does the idea of learning styles persist, then? While it may seem an odd term for an idea that sorts people into fixed groups with unalterable labels, at least part of the reason it has survived so long is because it’s so comfortable for students and teachers both. It’s not the material that’s difficult, just the style in which it’s presented. Another reason? When teachers tested learning styles in their classes, they walked in enthusiastically and expecting to see great things from their students. And it was that attitude alone, in what’s known as the Pygmalion effect, that inspired students to do better.
So the next time you have something to learn, focus on what you can get out of the experience, not whether the way it’s being presented matches your label. And the next time you have something to teach, focus more on your enthusiasm for your subject and your students –- and less on being stylish.