Research says... Preferred learning styles are a myth


By Sue Monsen, Associate Lecturer in Teacher Education and Professional Experience Coordinator
School of Human Movement & Nutrition Sciences (HMNS), The University of Queensland

Originally published in BHSPE Life. Reproduced with author permission.

What's your preferred learning style?

As someone with a career in, and passion for movement and sport, I like to 'learn by doing' so I’m definitely a kinaesthetic learner. But I also like to learn by listening to podcasts, audiobooks and TED talks which makes me an auditory learner right? Oh, but don’t try to give me directions verbally; you’ll need to draw me a map... so I'm visual? But then again, when I’ve got to do a test, I’m much better reading and making notes... um, isn't that a read/write learner? I thought we all had one best learning style! What the…?!?!


Am I a kinaesthetic, auditory, visual or read/write learner?

There are many models, programs and assessments that claim to measure your preferred learning style. Fleming's VARK (Visual - Auditory - Read/Write - Kinaesthetic) is one of the most pervasive ideas in Australia but there are many, many more worldwide.

The thinking is that when we identify someone’s preferred learning style, we can then maximise their learning outcomes by focussing our teaching on that style. Intuitively this sounds right. The problem is, there’s just no reliable evidence to support this premise.

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. (Pashler et al, 117:2009) 

In fact, research that has been done tends to fall into one of two categories:
1. The concept of preferred learning styles is supported but the research is dubious; or
2. Quality research is undertaken but it does not support the concept of preferred learning styles.

In studies where students identify their preferred learning strategy, they often don't use study strategies that link to these learning preferences, and the minority who do show no academic benefit.


So why does the idea of preferred learning styles persist amongst teachers, parents and students?

Learning styles are so embraced in our 'common knowledge' that we find confirmation bias in the evidence that we choose to observe, and that we choose to ignore.
There is also a misunderstanding that if teachers believe that preferred learning styles are a myth, then they also must believe that all students are identical and they should be taught the same. This could not be further from the truth.

Additionally, teaching is really complex and the pressure to demonstrate improved learning outcomes is huge. Teachers are constantly bombarded with messages about differentiation and individualising learning for students. The concept of preferred learning styles gives teachers a manageable way to deal with differentiation. If students are pigeon-holed into learning style 'boxes' then teachers can manage their workload while providing some focussed but differentiated instruction.

For parents and students, poor results can be blamed on the teacher for not maximising opportunities using students’ preferred learning styles. This deflects responsibility from student’s own lack of effort or their current abilities.

Finally, learning styles are big business. Testing tools, professional development, textbooks, teaching resources… $$$ ka-ching! Edu-businesses have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea of preferred learning styles.

What's the harm in teaching using preferred learning styles?

The problem with a continued focus on unsubstantiated ideas about preferred learning styles is that it takes time and effort away from using evidence-based pedagogical practices. John Hattie and colleagues have undertaken meta-analyses to discover the effect size of more than 250 influences on student achievement including teaching and learning strategies. This is where teachers should be putting their energy.

Moreover, in an effort to teach one lesson incorporating all learning styles, a teacher might ignore the most effective way to present that content, and could actually have a negative impact on students' learning.

Students may act on their label and disregard effective learning strategies because they do not match their nominated learning style. They may also try to use strategies that are ineffective because they are the only strategies they have been taught.

Students will benefit from you using a range of pedagogies or teaching tools. They also need you to teach them a range of learning/study strategies.

What can teachers do instead?

Stating the obvious: Every learner is different - different needs, different abilities, different interests and different backgrounds. Teachers need to account for these differences. But this is not the same as preferred learning styles.
In order to counter the myth of preferred learning styles, let's:

  • Stop talking about preferred learning styles. Recognise that we all learn in multiple ways and labelling students as Visual, Auditory, Read/Write or Kinaesthetic limits their learning.
  • Get to know our students' abilities, interests, needs and backgrounds.
  • Teach students a range of learning strategies and how they could be applied to different content or in different contexts.
  • Differentiate in other ways. Carol Tomlinson discusses how we can differentiate content, process, product and learning environment. Her work is easily accessible and practical for time-poor teachers. Important: Differentiation is not creating individual lessons or activities for every student in your class.