“Another nail in the coffin for learning styles” – students did not benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style

By Christian Jarrett

The idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred modality or “learning style” – such as visually, orally, or by doing – is not supported by evidence. Nonetheless the concept remains hugely popular, no doubt in part because learning via our preferred style can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t.

Some advocates of the learning styles approach argue that the reason for the lack of evidence to date is that students do so much of their learning outside of class. According to this view, psychologists have failed to find evidence for learning styles because they’ve focused too narrowly on whether it is beneficial to have congruence between teaching style and preferred learning style. Instead, they say psychologists should look for the beneficial effects of students studying outside of class in a manner that is consistent with their learning style.

For a new paper in Anatomical Sciences Education, a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have conducted just such an investigation with hundreds of undergrads. Once again however the findings do not support the learning styles concept, reinforcing its reputation among mainstream psychologists as little more than a myth.

At the start of term, Polly Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin asked hundreds of undergrads on an anatomy course (which involved lectures and practical lab classes) to take one of the most popular online learning styles surveys, the VARK. Taken by millions of people worldwide, the VARK categorises students according to how much they prefer to learn visually, via auditory information, through reading and writing, or through kinaesthetics (by doing or by practical example).

The VARK website also offers study tips based on your supposed preferred learning style(s). The researchers encouraged their student participants to take the survey and to adopt the study practices consistent with their dominant learning style. Later in the term, the researchers surveyed them about the methods they’d actually used when studying outside of class, to see if they used methods in line with their supposed dominant learning style. Finally, the researchers accessed the students’ end-of-year grades to see if there was any association between grade performance, dominant learning style, and/or studying outside of class in a way consistent with one’s dominant learning style.

The results are bad news for advocates of the learning styles concept. Student grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style or with any learning style(s) they scored highly on. Also, while most students (67 per cent) actually failed to study in a way consistent with their supposedly preferred learning style, those who did study in line with their dominant style did not achieve a better grade in their anatomy class than those who didn’t.

Instead, there were specific study strategies, such as practising microscope work and using lecture notes, that were associated with better grade performance, regardless of students’ learning style. Other activities, such as using flash cards, were associated with poorer performance, perhaps because they were a sign of learning by rote rather than deeper learning.

Husmann and O’Loughlin don’t pull any punches in their conclusion. Their findings, they write – especially when considered in the context of past research – “provide strong evidence that instructors and students should not be promoting the concept of learning styles for studying and/or for teaching interventions. Thus, the adage of ‘I can’t learn subject X because I am a visual learner’ should be put to rest once and for all.”

Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles

Image via JoanDragonfly / Flickr

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

93 thoughts on ““Another nail in the coffin for learning styles” – students did not benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style”

  1. Learning-styles are all about”learning how to learn.” If a students is least comfortable with learning visually, for example, then it is a good idea to get some instruction and practice in this mode of learning. Also, no one should have one way that they choose to learn or to teach( several of the questions in VARK are about how one would teach or present information to others. Finally, many individuals do not know how they best learn since they were never taught or have practice the proper approaches to each type of.leaarning

    1. Your comment sums up what I was thinking. It is the learning to learn, and the metacognition side of education which is important and will have the largest impact on learning.
      Learning is best done through experience, which for most people is through a more active approach, which could be why even people who don’t believe in learning styles still have a preference for how they approach learning.

    2. I’ve long suspected that there is no such thing as a preferred learning style. Some things are best taught using visual stimuli, some things are best taught through hands-on discovery, etc. So, if you wanted to explain why, e.g., light has a speed limit, then use visualizations to bring concepts and equations to life rather than dry text or spoken words. The only differences in learning styles (I suspect) would be the fact that many people are uncomfortable learning in groups. So group activities may have different effects on different learners.

  2. Early in my training career and learning path, I worked hard to develop strength in all 3 of the defined areas, to the point where I have no preference for any of them. I am currently researching the role that microlearning may have been playing in the decline of learning styles theory.

  3. What if this study was done with people at about the age of 8? I would assume tradespeople are kinaesthetic learners, not your typical undergraduate.

  4. Interesting article…As an educator interested in generating better learning outcomes across curriculum areas…designing lessons that appeal to as many of the human senses as possible will provide students with the opportunities to devise strategies for learning material…always with the focus on constructing new knowledge on prior knowledge And designing periodic opportunities to strengthening those connections between new knowledge and prior knowledge via wide-ranging strategies appealing to wide-ranging student learning or dominate learning preferences inside and outside the classroom reflecting wide-ranging curricula areas…Hence, learning strategies versus learning styles…that is, learning how to learn via wide-ranging curriculum areas seems to be a more accurate way of discussing the issue of learning and desired outcomes…

  5. While I get that using only a preferred learning style can limit the overall results, for persons with mental disabilities the fact that I can make the learning experience more fun for them helps them to engage more in the learning process. And there is scientific evidence that if you are enjoying what you do at a given moment your brain will retain more of the information than if you deem the info irrelevant. My son has made me a better visual communicator and I am grateful for it.

  6. So the professional educators here are completely unmoved by the scientific evidence and will keep their previous ideas anyway. Their first level of evasion was to change the subject in order to talk about another fad, “learning to learn,” claiming that learning styles are necessary in order to do that.

    I’m sorry you put so much energy into a theory that actually has no value. It must feel bad. But that’s what happens when you believe Education professors and the hired speakers they bring in for staff development days.

  7. It is much like going the wrong way on the interstate traveling East when you wanted to go West and you just keep going just because you have invested so much time in going East.

  8. I have to preface this. I’m an Instructional Designer and I know how academia will continue to cling “learning styles” and other concepts (multi-tasking, digital natives), fast falling out of favour due to research. I’m also of an age that I grew up learning by “gozintas & timze” (4 gozinta 8 two timze) -nasty, horrible, relentless rote -which worked for the purpose it was intended. There is a place for rote. Of late, academia has been so all consumed with using technology as a magic bullet for learning, that it simply has become a crutch for lazy, inept and/or uninspired teaching. Technology and simplistic, clucked theories can never replace the messiness, incoherence and clumsiness of human communication that is teaching. Despite theory and technology, teaching and learning are HUMAN activities. I have found there is only one “common truth” for teaching and learning. Learning depends on one thing only -the LEARNER! The desiring learner will find ways to overcome bad teaching and excel beyond expectation with good teaching. What is good teaching? Simply, it begins with clear concise content delivery in any of the myriad ways we can now use to deliver content. Some methods and resources are superior to others -depending on the content and how they are employed. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, but a clear, concise image should only be worth one word – “Aha”!
    I am so pleased to see the amount of research in the psychology of education. It is dispelling myths and, even better – making us think (I hope) of better ways to assist learners. I am reminded of the old joke about two university professors having a drink and one lamenting to the other, ‘You know, I’ve been teaching this stuff for forty years and they still don’t get it.” In my experience, the best teaching method or resource for learning content varies with the content. Some can be better addressed visually, while other senses predominate for other subjects (it’s hard to learn music visually or acting aurally).
    The article above tends to kick Dale’s Cone of Learning on its side. However, perhaps because I’ve been diagnosed on the Aspergers spectrum (or maybe it’s due to the type of work I’ve mostly done), my personal experience has always given the learning edge to performance followed by visual. I do seem to pick things up better this way. Maybe it’s because, performance forces me to think about the task I’m performing, helping solidify it into long term memory, but as previously stated, so does rote. I find that anything which gets me thinking about a topic helps me learn and remember. So, let the research continue. It’s desperately needed to replace the vast stores of “expertise” in the field of learning. Formal education is inextricably tied to psychology, which is still a field in its infancy. Right now, we need a lot more learning and lot less expertise.

    1. First of all, great article Christian; and then specifically this reply enjoyed reading your response, Brian. I concur. Your statement about the desiring learner overcoming ‘bad’ teaching and excelling with ‘good’ teaching (and I’ll add good or bad resources) is my observation as well.

  9. I note that this research was carried out with undergraduates, who presumably were motivated to learn. Sounds like an attempt to disprove a theory. I’d like to see more research on how we begin to teach. Especially, how do we get to young people at the fringes of school.

  10. Seems to me that all the commenters are falling victim to two logical errors. First, they are generalizing from a specific model of learning styles to the idea that learning styles probably don’t exist at all. Second, they are dismissing learning styles instead of asking whether there is another, more dominant factor, determining the results. Read more…http://loopcntr.net/wordpress/when-educator-logic-fails-learning-styles-are-called-myths/

  11. Learning styles is a term that is often misinterpreted. The over simplified version used for this article is not valid since it does not predict the changes needed for effectiveness. The other model is the one that uses the combinations of abstract and concrete, sequential and random. This provides much better analysis and predictions of pedagogies that are suited to provide personalised learning. However, the strength of these learning styles models is for teachers to identify their learning and teaching styles and to plan activities and learning pedagogies that take them away from their own preferred learning and teaching styles. This is becoming particularly important now as the millennial students we have now need to learn metacognitively, with greater innovation and creativity.

    1. This topic needs more research because our millennials have found out new ways for learning by themselves.

      1. However, learning by themselves focuses on content and facts. Developing capabilities and competencies, like referencing, using valid and reliable info. and metacognitive strategies, needs guidance from teachers.

  12. I am afraid that despite what research says, I know from my (and, my spouse’s) lives that learning style matters.
    I am a text-reader, and all multimedia goes over my head.
    My spouse is auditory … and, this was the big task the mother had … to read out loud.
    Sorry, this research is not a nail … like all research findings, tomorrow there will be another conclusion.

    Life teaches one what is the truth, hopefully

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes Learning Styles is important but it is really hard to change teachers’ Teaching Styles so that they can apply Learning Styles for the students.

      1. Thank you Graham for your insight.

        Yes indeed, the problem is often with the teaching side … availability of resources, competence of teachers to customise (especially for slow / disabled learners).
        The Education industry, especially in Third World mass market (and, not the high-priced elite institutions), need to continually re-evaluate their delivery mechanisms

  13. On balance: those who were sceptics now firmly believe that there is no such thing as learning styles (or at least not amongst undergraduates…); while those who spent half their teaching careers catering for these learning styles stick to them like glue. Human nature?
    If there is such a thing as a learning method preference, then in my opinion this is linked to personality, past experiences, environment, intelligence and such like.
    Over the decades, I found other things far more important than learning styles for learning to take place. The learner’s interest in the topic is vital. Information being made relevant to the learner personally – I always compose a sentence like ‘This learner needs to know this, because…’ (and, no, because it’s in the syllabus or because it’ll come up in the exam are not the right sort of answers here!). There then follows a horses-for-courses approach. You cannot teach anyone to swim by showing them a picture or video, or by reading a book about it. You cannot learn what a dragonfly looks like by somebody talking you through it.
    Learning style questionnaires don’t do any harm – even if the outcome does no good. It only becomes worrying if the learner only gets taught using their ‘preferred learning style’ from that day forward. But I can’t imagine any teacher doing that.
    So: live and let live?

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