The idea that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their specific “learning style” — auditory, kinesthetic, visual or some combination of the three — is widely considered a myth. Research has variously suggested that learners don’t actually benefit from their preferred style, that teachers and pupils have different ideas about what learning styles actually work for them, and that we have very little insight into how much we’re actually learning from various methods.
Despite this evidence, a large proportion of people — including the general public, educators and even those with a background in neuroscience — still believe in the myth. And a new review, published in Frontiers in Education, finds no signs of that changing.
The team looked at articles that focused on belief in learning styles published between 2009 and April 2020. Articles with participant groups that were not made up of educators or trainee educators were excluded from analysis, as were surveys that focused not on whether learning styles actually existed but on other opinions — whether they explain differences in achievement, for example. Data from over 15,000 educators were included in the analysis.
Overall, 89.1% of participants believed that people learn better when instruction is matched to their learning styles. A total of 95.4% of trainee educators believed in learning styles — slightly higher than the 87.8% of qualified educators who showed similar beliefs. And despite more widespread debunking of the myth, both in academic publishing and the mainstream media, there was no significant decrease in belief in studies conducted more recently.
This had a real impact on how teachers worked: in the seven studies that measured use or planned use of learning style-matched teaching, 79.7% of educators said they used or intended to use matched teaching methods. Interventions designed to disavow educators of their belief in learning styles did seem to make some difference, however — in the four studies that utilised training for these purposes, belief decreased significantly, from 78.4% to 37.1%.
The myth of learning styles, it seems, is as pervasive as ever. But why educators continue to believe in them is less clear. It may be that the belief is heavily promoted during teacher training; it could be that teachers are working with their students as their teachers worked with them; or it could be that attempts to debunk the myth have simply not been high profile enough, failing to cut through to educators.
But researchers could also do with improving research into the prevalence of learning style myths, the team suggests. Many studies included in the analysis had no key indicators of the quality of survey responses, raising questions about the generalisability of findings. “None of the studies use a defined, representative sample, and very few include sufficient information to allow the calculation of a response rate,” the team writes. The questionnaires used in the studies could also be clearer about exactly what it means to “match” instruction to learning styles, the authors add.
Future research could also look at the consequences of learning style-matched teaching — does it actually matter if the myth is perpetuated, and does it have a serious impact on how people learn? Studying how training can educate teachers on the learning style myth could also help us understand how it spreads and why it sticks — and might help students get the most out of education at the same time.