The notion of “learning styles”– that teaching to students’ preferred learning style will increase learning outcomes– is one of those persistent “neuromythologies” in education that just won’t go away. Studies around the world have found that 90%–97% of teachers believe that there is an optimal delivery style for each learner. While a number of different learning style models exist– ranging from 3 to 170 learning styles– one of the most popular is the “VAK Learning Styles” model. The idea of the VAK model is that students can be tested to learn their dominant learning style– visual (V), auditory (A), or kinesthetic (K)– and then students should be taught in a way that best matches that style. Some schools even puts the labels V, A, and K on the shirts of students in the classroom!
This neuromyth persists despite the fact that we know that the brain is massively interconnected, and that common brain functions (particularly in the prefrontal cortex) cut across virtually any act of deliberate learning. Studies have consistently shown that catering to differences in students’ preferred learning style does not actually result in any improvement in learning outcomes. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that optimal learning for everyone involves the opportunity to engage in as many sensory modalities as possible.
Adding to the growing chorus of learning styles skeptics, researchers from Greece investigated whether there was any correspondence between the preferred learning style of the student and the teacher’s perception of the learning style of the student. This was important considering that teachers often rely on their own assessment of the learning styles of their students.
Consistent with prior findings, every single teacher in their study believed that teaching tailored to the students’ learning style enhance the learning of new information. However, they found zero relationship between the self-assessments of learning styles by the students and the assessments of the teachers. There was also no relationship between the IQ of the student and the teacher’s perception of the learning style of the student.
Whatever information teachers are using to identify their students’ preferred learning style, it’s not actually related to the students’ preferred learning style or even the actual intellectual ability of the students!
If Not Learning Styles, Then What?
It has been my personal experience working with teachers that they generally have truly compassionate intentions and really do want to help each individual student flourish in the classroom and beyond. I think the learning styles neuromyth is paved with good intentions, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful to students.
For one– and I know this may sound paradoxical– but emphasizing learning styles and even “multiple intelligences” in the classroom can foster a fixed mindset, not a growth mindset. This should create quite the cognitive dissonance for teachers who generally love both growth mindset theory and learning styles.
But here’s the thing: giving students the message that “It’s OK if you’re not good at <insert “intelligence” or “learning style” here>, you can still be good at <insert whatever here>” can lead students to give up on cultivating key learning skills that can be developed, to an extent, in everyone. Believe it or not, by promoting a dominant learning styles mentality, we are actually limiting students with self-fulfilling prophecies despite the best intentions.
Also, the findings from this latest study suggest that learning styles are not even readily observable in the school environment by the teachers. Teachers often think they know what’s best for the student, but this rarely matches with what the students think is the best thing for themselves. This is quite problematic, because it’s possible for students to fall between the cracks because their greatest strengths aren’t actually being recognized in the classroom environment.
Of course, this does not mean that we should give up the entire spirit of appreciating individual differences. On the contrary, some individual differences are very important for learning. There are numerous personal characteristics that do show significant correlations with learning outcomes, such as general cognitive ability, intellectual curiosity, social belonging, school identification, self-regulation, effective learning strategies, interest in the subject material, personal goals, background knowledge, and personal life experiences. Understanding these differences and using that information to inform classroom instruction is immensely important. However, custom tailoring instruction to a particular sensory modality is not grounded in what we know about how people actually learn new information across domains.
I truly believe there is much more potential in students than either the students or the teachers often realize, but we if we want to get the best out of all students, we must ground the research in actual evidence, not just what feels right.