It feels as though we learn better via our preferred learning style, but we don’t

By Christian Jarrett

The idea that we learn more effectively when we’re taught via our preferred “learning style” – such as through pictures, written words, or by sound – is popular with students and teachers alike. A recent survey found that 93 per cent of British teachers believe in the idea. But time and again laboratory tests have failed to find support for the concept of learning styles. In fact, the most effective learning modality usually depends on the nature of the material to be learned. So why does the myth of learning styles refuse to die? A new study in the British Journal of Psychology uncovers a compelling reason – when learning via what we think is our preferred style, it feels as though we have learned more effectively, even though we haven’t. 

Abby Knoll and her colleagues at Central Michigan University began by asking 52 female students to complete a questionnaire designed to establish how much they like learning through written words and how much they prefer to learn through pictures. For example, they said how much they enjoyed doing work that involves words, or how much they use diagrams to explain things.

The researchers then asked the participants to study and remember a list of 30 pairs of words, presented one pair at a time, then do the same with a list of 30 pairs of pictures, also shown one pair at a time (some participants did this in reverse, studying the picture pairs first and the word pairs later). The words and pictures corresponded to common objects and animals.

During this study phase, the researchers gauged the participants’ subjective sense of learning. Immediately after some pairs, the participants were shown one item in the pair and asked to rate how confidently they thought they would be able to recall the other item. Other times, they made this subjective judgment after a delay (that is, after studying several other word or picture pairs). The participants also made a global judgment of how well they felt they’d learned each list, and they answered a few questions about learning, such as whether they believed in learning styles – all of them did.

After a short while, during which time the participants completed some irrelevant filler tasks, the researchers tested the participants’ memory for the word and picture pairs by showing them one item from each pair and asking them to recall the other item.

Consistent with past research on learning styles, the participants’ preferred learning style (verbal or pictorial) was not related in any way to how well they recalled the pairs of words or the pairs of pictures. In fact, regardless of their preferred learning style, participants were better at remembering picture pairs than word pairs. This is consistent with the well-known “picture superiority effect” – pictures are easier to remember than words.

But crucially, despite there being no link between learning style and objective performance, participants expressed more confidence in their learning of pairs that matched their preferred modality. This was true when asked immediately after seeing a pair, but not after a delay or when making a global judgment. This is presumably because the participants’ immediate judgments were influenced by their beliefs about their learning style or their feelings of ease of learning, whereas the subjective judgments of learning they made after a delay were likely based on a private attempt at recall, success at which would not have been greater for their preferred modality.

This study isn’t the final word on why the concept of learning styles is so popular. The sample was small; the study only looked at one binary division of learning styles (there are many countless, competing ways to categorise learning styles); and the learning test was very simple. However, it provides concrete data demonstrating one important and compelling reason for the stubbornness of this psychological myth – for many of us, learning via our preferred style feels more effective even when it isn’t, an effect that means learning via our preferred style could even be harmful in the sense of giving us false confidence.

Other reasons for the myth’s endurance likely include teachers’ understandable motivation to be sensitive to each student’s individual needs, and the commercial interest of many publishers and related industries in providing ways to measure learning styles.

Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information

10 of The Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

28 thoughts on “It feels as though we learn better via our preferred learning style, but we don’t”

  1. The description of the study indicates that some terms are conflated: recall is measured, yet conclusions about learning are drawn. Additionally, the 30 words at a time method is decontextualized, and is not how learning happens. Flaws in the framing of the concepts that do not advance understanding or even uphold the claim that learning styles do not exist.

    1. A couple issues with your critique: Memory is certainly not the sole indicator of learning, but it is a prerequisite for it. If there is no memory of content, an event, subject matter, a process, etc., then one would be hard pressed to make a claim that learning has occurred. And this applies to semantic, episodic, and procedural knowledge. (I agree that most learning happens in a more contextualized environment, but that is not the only way learning happens.) Learning styles have never been shown to exist and there is currently a preponderance of evidence that they do not. The burden of proof lies with those claiming they exist, and the abundance of research studies concluding the null hypothesis when interaction effects were tested would strongly suggest they don’t.

  2. It appears the study equates memory with learning. It sounds like the conclusion should be limited to “learning styles may not impact one’s ability to remember details or assist with tasks based on rote memorization”.

    Did I miss something here? (I’m not being sarcastic, either.) It doesn’t help the “learning styles” theory but it is only a straw that breaks this theory-camel’s back if one has already accepted the camel is in dire straits.

    1. The camel, so to speak, is without a doubt in dire straits. In fact, it is not appropriate to refer to learning styles as a theory at this point. It is a disproven hypothesis. There is by now a wealth of research that not only points out the lack of evidence for learning styles’ ability to influence learning and even their existence, but also high quality studies that show a lack of an interaction effect between learning styles and instructional method, as this one apparently did.

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