LEARNING STYLES WON’T IMPROVE STUDENT OUTCOMES BECAUSE THEY DON’T EXIST
By: Mohannad Arbaji, ChalkTalk Founder & CEO
Imagine you’re observing two geometry teachers in your school’s math department. You need to assess the teachers’ use of evidence-based lessons and how the students are engaged with the learning. Both geometry teachers are covering how to apply common formulas to a real-world construction project.
In the first classroom, the students are divided into three distinct groups based on their learning styles. The visual learners have access to an array of graphic organizers, charts, and diagrams. The auditory learners have headphones to listen to a commentary on geometry applications. The kinaesthetic learners have manipulatives and are assigned hands-on activities.
The teacher visits each group many times throughout the class session to answer questions and facilitate learning activities. In the second classroom, the students sit at their desks, lined up in rows (or four-desk squares), all facing the teacher as she explains how to apply common geometry formulas to a home construction project. She presents the entire group with the same practice problems, and the students review the results together, asking and answering questions as they come up. The teacher also uses formative assessments throughout the class session and quickly adjusts her lesson delivery based on her students’ understanding. She ends the session with an exit ticket that will inform her strategy for the next day’s lesson.
The first teacher’s classroom undoubtedly supports the idea that students are naturally predisposed to learn “better” through one of three media—visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic activities. This learning style approach is popular with many educators and families as an innovative and modern way to increase students’ proficiencies. Although the second teacher’s classroom was guided by more evidence-based, traditional teaching practices, many would claim to prefer the first classroom. The problem is, the first teacher’s method is not the most effective approach to student learning.
What Are Learning Styles?
The learning styles theory depicted in the first teacher’s classroom has been a popular concept in education for years. The theory suggests people have established preferred media for processing and storing information, and designing learning experiences according to those preferences will help students perform better academically.
Today’s concept of learning styles was shaped by the VARK model, which stands for visual, auditory, reading, and kinaesthetic. Although first developed by the US educator Walter Burke Barbe as VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) in the late 1970s, it’s often associated with the New Zealand teacher Neil Fleming, who popularized the idea that visual learners learn best with visual aids, auditory learners learn best through listening, and kinaesthetic learners learn best through physical activities.
This popularization led some educators to suggest the use of games and activities to cater to kinaesthetic learners. Although well-intended, such claims may result in a classroom environment where teachers work much harder, while the students actually learn a fraction of what they could.
By the mid-20th century, two opposing visions of learning emerged. The first, based on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered learning to be an inherent and emerging property that grew from a child’s own interests and motivations. Here, the teacher’s role was to support and encourage this force, allowing the child to follow their own interests. This approach recognized the diversity of children, with each child having a unique set of needs.
The second vision, however, viewed learning as an external process that must be imposed upon the child through coercive methods. According to this perspective, children are more alike than different in how they learn. As a result, educators must administer learning in a standardized and uniform manner.
The former approach sounded hopeful and was in alignment with the broader self-improvement trend in the 20th century, which championed autonomy.
As a result, the learning styles theory has seen wide adoption in the field of education for years. However, a growing body of evidence suggests the theory is fundamentally flawed. The most worrying aspect of this flawed theory is its enduring prevalence and almost total acceptance in some areas of education, despite the lack of evidence to support it.
One reason for the theory’s persistence is its guise of being a more compassionate, thoughtful, and caring approach to education. It offers a retrospective saving grace for all the kids who got left behind by school, including those who are writing the education laws today.
It seems reasonable to assume individuals have different learning preferences and styles. However, the tragedy of a child failing to reach their full potential should be placed above the romantic appeal of pseudoscientific theories.
Why Are Learning Styles Flawed?
Learning styles do not improve learning outcomes. Research from the American Psychological Association states there is no scientific evidence to support the learning styles myth. Similar findings have been echoed across large bodies of research such as this, this, and this—the latter which states, “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.”
The theory of learning styles also suffers from innate structural flaws, such as reliability of reported data, and whether the results they provide hold across time. If surveys are unreliable and learning styles change frequently—sometimes weekly or daily with changing contexts—then they carry little significance. For instance, almost everyone agrees one learns the guitar by playing it themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a tactile or kinaesthetic learner across all domains, but rather this is how one learns to play an instrument.
The notion of confirmation bias is also relevant when it comes to learning styles theory. US psychologists Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham argue the theory has become so widespread it’s now considered “common knowledge,” which makes it all the more compelling to believe.
One view is that what these tools measure is a learning preference rather than a style. For example, someone might prefer watching videos over reading books, but there is no evidence to suggest using pictures will lead to a better understanding or retention of knowledge. A 2016 study found no difference in learning outcomes between visual and verbal learners when material was presented in different forms, despite the visual learners feeling more confident when studying with illustrations and the verbal learners feeling more confident when studying in their preferred mode.
It’s also important to note the distinction between learning and performance. Students can give the impression they are learning by being actively engaged in an activity but with little actual cognitive expenditure. Research suggests students are typically more engaged with materials they already know, meaning these highly-engaged students are performing—not learning. Gamified learning tools might be fun for some students, but they can easily mislead educators and families into thinking learning outcomes have improved. The reality is these tools improve performance without ensuring the learning has taken place.
Now let’s go back to our math classroom example… The students in the first classroom with VARK stations have high levels of engagement, but engagement doesn’t mean they’re actually learning. Paradoxically, the students sitting in rows in the second math classroom could very well be making long-lasting learning gains while appearing detached or uninterested. On a superficial level, the classroom might not appear equally as “fun” for students as the first classroom, but ”desirable difficulties” improve long-term retention. Namely, research on “desirable difficulties” encourages educators to get students to do things that feel “difficult” in the short-term which result in the “desirable” goal of long-term learning.
The opposite of this is also true: activities that feel easy in the short term can end up being unproductive for learning in the long term. In the second classroom, the teacher calls on students, challenging them to recall and apply concepts. This promotes deep understanding and learning beyond rote memorization, despite students externally appearing less engaged than those in the first classroom.
While it’s exciting for teachers and administrators to see students engaged with the lessons, engagement is a poor proxy indicator of learning.
Catering to learning styles can lead to a one-size-fits-all teaching approach, ignoring the complex nature of learning. It can also facilitate an environment that makes students feel limited. For example, if a student is told she is a visual learner, then she may start to feel it’s impossible to learn through other methods. These perceived limitations lead students toward a fixed mindset, which hinders a person’s ability to learn and grow, and possibly even reject other forms of learning. Although likely unintentional, telling students they are a specific type of learner instills the idea in that young person they cannot succeed in another medium and stifles their academic growth.
Many of us know at least one person who was told they’re “not good at math” back in school. This kind of comment stifles a young person’s view of themselves all the way into adulthood. That person carries that trauma with them as part of their identity, which can surface as insecurity and anxiety around working with numbers.
For example, when they’re out with friends for dinner and have to calculate the tip on a bill in front of the group, they’ll immediately think, “I’m not good at math, I can’t do this, I’m going to embarrass myself, and everyone will think I’m not smart!” instead of directing their mental bandwidth toward attempting to calculate the tip. This is what happens when you tell a child early on they’re not “x”—whatever “x” is.
As educators, we believe that all kids are math kids, all kids are reading kids, and all kids are writing kids—and they should all be taught as such.
What Are Some Evidence-Based Learning Practices?
It’s essential to understand how to create an environment that maximizes students’ learning potential. While the evidence behind learning styles is lacking, there are several education principles you can rely on.
Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? expertly describes what an evidence-based classroom looks like. An effective teacher reviews previous learning, checks for understanding, provides impactful feedback, creates a positive classroom climate, guides success, and reduces cognitive load.
Let’s take a deep dive into “provides impactful feedback” from the list above. Students benefit from specific feedback explaining what they did well and what could be improved, which gives students the opportunity to make adjustments as they learn and more rapidly improve their skills. It also improves students’ self-awareness.
Student feedback should be highly individualized, so the teacher must be well acquainted with the student’s academic strengths and preferences. The feedback is meant to be constructive, not critical, as well as timely, and it should cater to their learning needs. Generic feedback doesn’t help students improve their performance, so teachers should be as specific with their remarks as possible.
Since people tend to adapt their learning preferences based on the situation they’re in, teachers should incorporate a variety of instructional approaches. Lectures, group discussions, charts, presentations, and hands-on activities are all options any student could benefit from, depending on the subject matter.
Teachers can also create a more engaging learning environment by varying their instructional approaches. Rather than students expecting to learn with auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic tools for every lesson (depending on their learning style, of course), teachers can use a variety of the aforementioned instructional strategies. This keeps lessons fresh and reduces the odds of students developing fixed mindsets around learning.
Incorporating evidence-based teaching practices into lessons creates a dynamic and engaging environment that encourages students to learn. Incorporating the most effective teaching strategies in your education program, such as openers in every lesson, turn-and-talks, problem-based learning, and varying instructional approaches, is essential for student learning.
How Do Students Really Learn?
The idea of learning styles remains so prevalent in teaching because it includes the persuasive claim that every student is unique. Of course, that’s undeniable: students are individuals with their own emotions and needs.
For example, two siblings may like to receive comfort differently during a thunderstorm, but they still share baseline nutritional requirements. Even if one sibling prefers only sweet and salty foods, such a diet will not satisfy their nutritional needs.
The same concept can be applied to students: every student is unique. Learning preferences can help educators discover who their students are as people, but there are baseline things that every student needs in order to learn, regardless of preferences:
- Factual knowledge. Critical thinking skills are vital in life—no one’s disputing that—but in order to apply what they learn and come to their own conclusions, students need to know and understand the foundational, factual knowledge of the skill they’re attempting to master.
- Feedback on performance. Timely and specific feedback allows students to refine their work and make a targeted effort to improve their skills.
- Engaging in learning activities that move knowledge from short-term into long-term memory. When knowledge isn’t committed to a person’s long-term memory, it’s more challenging for that person to learn more advanced concepts.
Without these three things, impactful learning is far less likely to occur. Each student might have different learning preferences, but they all have an overlapping baseline of learning needs.
Personalization Is Still Important to Learning
Although the learning style approach isn’t the most effective teaching method, its focus on the student as an individual is appealing. Differentiation is important for students in many ways, and it’s important for teachers to get to know their students. However, that doesn’t mean teachers should follow the learning style theory as a modern, evidence-based pedagogy. Instead, it’s better to find ways to implement personalized learning using proven teaching strategies.
While it’s excellent to personalize learning experiences for students for things like practice and assessments, it’s crucial to pair it with real-time interactions such as teacher-led direct instruction and small group work with peers to achieve maximum outcomes. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to provide explicit instruction or model academic success. When the teacher explicitly explains complex concepts, they give every student the basic facts needed for them to internalize new skills. Activities like group discussions with individual feedback based on key knowledge can deepen students’ understanding and increase their knowledge, regardless of their learning preference.
Rather than differentiate students according to their preferences, teachers should get to know their students on a personal level. Students, like the rest of us, are individuals and need to be treated as such.
That said, there’s a difference between respecting a student’s individuality and treating students as learners. As individuals, students will have preferences in how they learn and what they study, yet research tells us the fundamentals of learning remain the same for everyone.
Herein lies the paradox: teachers must treat students as individuals and respond to their emotional needs, yet those needs cannot negate best teaching practices based on fundamentals that apply to all learners. To help students thrive, there must be a balance between personalization for students’ benefits while applying teaching tactics every student needs.
Learning styles may not exist, but knowing and understanding your students will help you better respond to them appropriately in any learning environment. Combining this with evidence-based teaching solutions, teachers can help all students reach their fullest learning potential.
To learn how ChalkTalk supports teachers with evidence-based strategies, contact us today.