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.