Learning styles are fake news

Let’s bury the fallacy that students favour particular approaches regardless of the topic, says Gavin Moodie

April 13, 2020
Student sleeping on desk
Source: iStock

Before “fake news”, we used to think that demonstrating the falsity of a claim consigned it to irrelevance for all but a delusional fringe. But perhaps it is time to accept that myths persist and mutate as malignantly as viruses.

Academic research can have its own myths. Education research certainly does. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is learning styles.

The theory is based on the common observation that people have different preferences for absorbing information. The hope is that by matching education to individuals’ preferences for absorbing information, inequality of attainment can be significantly reduced. This individualistic, egalitarian appeal is illustrated by the title of a 1995 paper by Neil Fleming of Lincoln University in New Zealand: “I’m different; not dumb”.

There may be little scope amid the mass unplanned online switchover to cater to different learning styles, but the concept is still prominent in the plethora of advice being offered about how to do online teaching. In fact, however, there is no strong evidence that students’ learning is improved when education is matched to their posited learning styles. By contrast, learning is demonstrably affected strongly by many other factors, including ability; motivation; prior attainment; family, social and economic backgrounds; and the course’s particular curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and teachers.

All learning-style theories assume that an individual will learn best if all the education or training is delivered in the same individually preferred way, regardless of what type of knowledge or skills the learner is seeking to master. “Visual” learners would learn best visually regardless of whether the subject were visual arts, music, languages or mathematics.

In 2014, Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, reported that between 93 per cent and 97 per cent of schoolteachers in the UK, Greece, the Netherlands, China and Turkey believed that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style”. And a Google search of “university learning styles” generates about 70,000 results. Typical of the results on the first page is a university that claims that “an obstacle to effective teaching and learning can arise when students and instructors fail to recognize different learning styles”.

The reality is that different knowledge and skills have different structures, methods and modes of representation, which are best learned in different ways. Teachers should support students to develop their ability to learn in the way that is most suitable for each subject.

Education has evidently failed in its special responsibility to equip students to evaluate knowledge claims. However, while it should not give up trying, it is so pre-2016 to think that education alone can block myths’ malign influence on public policy. People shape their children’s education more on views picked up from personal interactions and what they find on the internet than on experts’ advice. Hence, even before the coronavirus thrust all parents into the role of educators, there had been a sharp increase in homeschooling and alternative schools, such as academies in the UK and charter schools in the US.

There seems to be a need to address scholarly communication’s increasing bifurcation into journal articles targeted at research specialists and mass media articles targeted at the public, which report biased or faulty “research” without qualification. This gap could be filled by systematic reviews of research, written in plain language for practitioners and the public. Such reviews would be a good way of accessibly reconciling and synthesising disparate findings. A good model would be the global not-for-profit network Cochrane, which maintains 7,000 plain language summaries of its systematic reviews of primary research in healthcare and health policy.

A hierarchy of research syntheses of increasing generality, supported by research funders and overseen by scholarly societies, would promulgate the broad scholarly consensus with more authority than separate, unendorsed studies. They may not get us out of the post-truth era, but they would be easily identifiable and accessible alternatives to the misinformation that pervades public forums and even infects university teaching.

Gavin Moodie is adjunct professor of education at RMIT University, Melbourne, and the University of Toronto.

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Reader's comments (3)

Wow! I never expected to see such a great article. Perhaps we can start to move beyond a system that seems to contend that anyone can be good at anything. There is something called aptitude that plays its part as well as motivation and application. Letting students think that the world will adapt itself to them does them no favours in the long run.
Yes, a good read & several compelling messages. I'm all for systematic reviews. But I reckon the headline is misleading -- because it presupposes or infers there is 'one theory' to be debunked. The sub-heading follow-on clarifies things better, particularly through the phrase 'regardless of topic'. All the same, there's been no shortage of 'learning styles' debunkers over the last decade (e.g., Kirschner, Newton, & Seaman). The mythbusters! The problem is, they invariably conflate the various pop psychology applications of the construct with the way Kolb articulated it as a component of his theory on experiential learning. As a construct, it can be useful terminology depending on the context -- just like "learning preferences" is a useful construct & well-defined in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Standards. But while the W3C definition might not be useful in other contexts this doesn't make it false. Moreover, Kolb's theory spoke in terms of individual preferences toward one of four modes: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation. But YES, "A hierarchy of research syntheses of increasing generality, supported by research funders and overseen by scholarly societies, would promulgate the broad scholarly consensus with more authority than separate, unendorsed studies." There are countless learning theories, indeed countless theories of the world. Theories are always contested.
Thanx jm Indeed, there are several rather different characterisations of learning styles. Coffield, Moseley, Hall and Ecclestone (2004: 1) reviewed 71 learning styles and described 13 in detail. They found them to differ importantly on internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity, and predictive validity. I add that they differ markedly in explanatory power and pedagogic feasibility. Coffield, Frank, Moseley, David, Hall, Elaine and Ecclestone, Kathryn (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre, Learning and Skills Development Agency. https://web.archive.org/web/20160304072804/http://sxills.nl/lerenlerennu/bronnen/Learning%20styles%20by%20Coffield%20e.a..pdf

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