How do students learn better? Looking at diagrams, using audio recordings, or with hands-on experience? Does it depend on each student? In reality, contrary to a widespread idea, science does not confirm that it is advantageous to adapt the teaching to the students’ preferences towards learning styles. A very recent study reinforces this scepticism with new data.
At a time when the individualisation of teaching is under discussion, and as the increase in online teaching can also lead teachers to reflect upon it, it may be tempting to adapt pedagogical activities to the students’ learning styles. However, researchers urge caution1 and recommend the use of strategies with proven generic effectiveness – such as spaced practice or self-testing. This does not mean that many students are not more likely to remember the content when it is presented in a visual format, whereas others claim to retain more information to hear, and others seem to need to do things to understand them. Any of those situations are plausible, and each student can have their preferences. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to think that some of them need a type of instruction that is almost exclusively visual or almost exclusively auditory.
Cognitive sciences still have a lot to investigate in this matter, but choosing between a visual, an auditory, or any other explanation seems to depend more on the subject’s characteristics than on the student’s preferences. It is thought that in order to understand geometry, it is advantageous to use images, whereas to feel poetry, it is important to read and listen to it.
Styles to delimit differences in learning
The term “styles” came into general use in the middle of the 20th century so as to delimit differences between people. Over the past few years2, around 71 models of learning styles have been proposed. Among them, the well-known Kolb model3 started by introducing different stages of learning, namely, concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. With the emergence of several inventories4,5,6, the proponents of the style approach tended to consider three types: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic – establishing that which at first glance seems to be a logical correspondence with the three entryways for information in the brain: sensory processing through image, sound, and touch7.
Teaching according to the preferred learning style is a widespread practice8. It is possible to find several references to this methodology, especially aimed at students identified as auditory and visual learners, from the kindergarten to university teaching9.
According to recent surveys, more than 90% of teachers believe that styles work. And this happens whether they are Portuguese, English, Dutch, Turkish, or Chinese13, 14, 15. Even teachers who could be better informed, such as those who have already attended advanced training in cognitive neurosciences (the scientific field that criticises this approach the most)16, or those who were distinguished with education awards17 are mistaken about styles, which makes this myth one of the most persistent ones in education.
This myth is also maintained by the fact that teachers are bombarded by the commercial sector with the VAK (Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic) or VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinaesthetic) programs, with promises of effectiveness, because they are, allegedly, brain-based18.
Another idea that reinforced teaching by learning styles arose from a study that measured the perception of university students on how they prefer to receive information21. It quickly extrapolated to the assumption that children developed styles of learning and the number of instruments to profile grew. One of the most complex measuring instruments combines at least 49 elements (from strong presence to the absence of preference), and the ease of identifying only one style as the predominant one is odd22.
The effectiveness of adapting teaching to learning styles is not proven
In fact, we are all different and not all of us share the same tastes, whether in sports, music or even food. Therefore, it seems intuitively correct to consider that each student learns best when they are taught according to the preferences they declare or think they have.
What is important to debate is whether learning through teaching that adapts to the preferences of each student generates better academic performance. To date, studies that have tested this hypothesis have not found a significant positive relationship that underlies this interaction between style preference and the most effective form of instruction10, 11, 12.
The most recent of these studies, published in February, also reveals that 68% of students in the 5th year of schooling do not even have a clear preference for the learning style1.
The weaknesses of studies that claim benefits regarding this approach are identified in several literature reviews. What can be seen is that practically all studies that present supposed evidence do not comply with the minimum criteria of scientific validity, and some do not even have a control group for comparison8,11,20.
One of the main problems arises as soon as the diagnosis of learning styles is carried out, and, later, from the usefulness of aligning the instructions to those same styles23. This turns the style screening itself into an unnecessary waste of time, resources, and effort on the part of teachers. It would be precisely the teachers who would benefit the most from following the instructional practices that are based on solid research data, rather than trends or opinions. There are several examples to follow, such as dual coding, which combines textual information with images, or spaced out practice and retrieval, as mentioned above.
This may be one of the biggest concerns in the field of education since the end of the twentieth century24 − the scant recommendation of school practices based on verified facts, in contrast to the diffusion of several apparently seductive but insufficiently informed or poorly evaluated pedagogical suggestions.
1 Rogowsky BA, Calhoun BM and Tallal P, «Providing Instruction Based on Students’ Learning Style Preferences Does Not Improve Learning», Frontiers in Psychology, 2020,11:164.
2 Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., «Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post 16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Revie», London: Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004.
3 Kolb, D. A., «Experiential Learning Theory and the Learning Style Inventory: A reply to Freedman and Stumpf», Academy of Management Review 6(2), 1981, pp. 289-296.
4 Kolb, D., «Learning style inventory», Boston: McBer, 1985.
5 Dunn, R., Dunn, K. & Price, G.E., «Learning style inventory», Lawrence, KS: Price Systems, 1984.
6 Honey, P., and Mumford, A., «The manual of learning styles», Maidenhead: Peter Honey, 1992.
7 Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R., «Learning styles: concepts and evidence», Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9, 2009, pp. 105–119.
8 Papadatou-Pastou M, Gritzali M and Barrable A, «The Learning Styles Educational Neuromyth: Lack of Agreement Between Teachers’ Judgments, Self-Assessment, and Students’ Intelligence», Frontiers in Education, 3:105, 2018.
9 Newton, P.M., «The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education», Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1908, 2015.
10 Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., and Tallal, P., «Matching learning style to instructional method: effects on comprehension», Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 2015, pp. 64–78.
11 Kirschner, P. A., «Stop propagating the learning styles myth», Computers & Education, 106, 2017, pp. 166–171.
12 Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., and Dobolyi, D. G., «The scientific status of learning styles theories», Teaching of Psychology, 42, 2015, pp. 267–271.
13 Howard-Jones, P., «Neuroscience and education: myths and messages», Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 2015, pp. 817–824.
14 Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., and Jolles, J., «Neuromyths in education: prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers», Frontiers in Psychology, 429, 2012, pp. 1–8.
15 Rato, J.R., Abreu, A.M., & Castro-Caldas, A., «Neuromyths in education: What is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers?», Educational Research, 55(4), 2013, pp. 441–453.
16 MacDonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., and McGrath, L. M., «Dispelling the myth: training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths», Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2017, pp. 1–16.
17 Horvath JC, Donoghue GM, Horton AJ, Lodge JM and Hattie JAC, «On the Irrelevance of Neuromyths to Teacher Effectiveness: Comparing Neuro-Literacy Levels Amongst Award-Winning and Non-award Winning Teachers», Frontiers in Psychology, 9:1666, 2018.
18 Goswami, U., «Neuroscience and education: from research to practice?» Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 2006, pp. 406–413.
19 Rohrer, D., and Pashler, H., «Learning styles: where’s the evidence?», Medical Education, 46, 2012, pp. 634–635.
20 Sharp, J. G., Byrne, J., and Bowker, R., «The trouble with VAK», Educational Futures, 1, 2007, pp. 78–93.
21 Newton, PM. and Miah, M., «Evidence-Based Higher Education - Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?», Frontiers in Psychology, 8:444, 2017.
22 Prashnig, B., «Learning styles vs. multiple intelligences (MI): Two concepts for enhancing learning and teaching», Teaching Expertise, vol. 9, Outono de 2005, pp. 8e9.
23 Willingham, D.T., «Do visual, auditory, and kinestheticlearners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction?», American Educator, 29(2), verão de 2005, pp. 31–35.
24 Davies, P., «What is evidence-based education?», British Journal of Educational Studies, 47, 1999, pp. 108–121.