Learning styles are a myth – the research is conclusive. What can we take away from this myth, though? What, if anything, can be salvaged from learning styles theory and its relation to empirically-backed learning theories?
I have a confession to make. Until recently, I believed in learning styles. I may not have been a die-hard proponent, but I thought of learning styles as a largely accurate way of describing individual differences between learners.
In fact, I identified as a visual learner, one of the four main categories in the popular VARK theory (Visual / Auditory / Reading-Writing / Kinesthetic). I was convinced that I learned best when presented with visual materials.
If you read the title of this post, you know where this is going. Study after study after study has shown there to be no solid evidence that teaching to a learner’s preferred learning style has any benefit on their learning.
In fact, our stated preferences may not even be our actual preferences. In a 2018 study at Indiana University, more than 400 students completed a VARK questionnaire at the beginning of the semester. Then, at the end of the semester, those students completed another questionnaire asking which study strategies they employed. Most students reported using study strategies that were out of alignment with their VARK preferences.
This post, though, isn’t about deconstructing the learning styles myth (if you want that, you can turn elsewhere). It’s about examining what it tells us about teaching and learning, and how we can use that to inform our pedagogies.
Some Learning Strategies Work Better Than Others
While adopting VARK-specific teaching and learning strategies does not benefit learners, that doesn’t mean that all learning strategies are the same. Depending on what is being learned, some strategies are far more likely to be effective.
Take the previously referenced IU study. The students who did employ study strategies in alignment with their VARK preferences did not perform better than their peers. However, “some specific study strategies (irrespective of VARK results), such as use of the virtual microscope, were found to be positively correlated with final class grade” (Husmann & O’Laughlin, 2018).
This makes intuitive sense: art is best learned visually, music is best learned auditorily, and so on. Every discipline has a robust literature about discipline-specific teaching strategies that enhance learning.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore individual differences between learners. For example, the “expertise reversal effect,” coined by Kalyuga et al. (2003), explains that prior knowledge and expertise with a topic has a profound impact on the effectiveness of learning strategies. The researchers found that inexperienced learners learned better by studying examples of problems, while experienced learners learned better by solving those problems.
Preference ≠ Learning
One of the core problems of learning styles theory is that they often conflate a learner’s preference for learning in one modality to learning better in that modality. This conflation usually comes from a good place: the desire to understand that individual students are different and to take full advantage of those differences.
However, subjective feelings of enjoying learning or it being smoother and easier have very little to do with objective measures of learning. For example, one study sorted learners into visualizers and verbalizers, and found that while there was a strong connection between learning style and subjective judgments of learning, learning style made no difference on objective measures of recall (Knoll et al., 2016).
Learning is rarely easy – in fact, by making it easier for students to interact with materials that match their preferences, we may be inadvertently harming learning. If, for example, reading is critical to reaching a course’s learning goals, then “educators may actually be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually accommodating their auditory learning style preference … rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills” (Rogoswky, Calhoun, & Tallal, 2015).
This idea resonates with my experience of teaching English majors about visual design. English majors spend the majority of their academic life engaging with the written word, and yet the written word is not an effective means of learning about visual design. Part of my job when teaching visual design was to help these students learn to learn through visual means. This process was uncomfortable for most of my students, but it was also necessary to reach the course objectives.
Multimodality and UDL
After realizing that learning styles are a myth, I immediately wondered about Universal Design for Learning, in particular the UDL principle of providing multiple means of representation.
Unlike learning styles, there is a strong empirical research base for UDL. Much of the research for multiple means of representation is based on an idea called the multimedia principle, which holds that people learn better when information is presented in multiple modalities, such as written words, spoken words, and pictures/video.
Consider, for instance, this question from the VARK questionnaire. “I want to learn how to play a new board game or card game. I would:
- Use the diagrams that explain the various stages, moves and strategies in the game.
- Read the instructions.
- Listen to somebody explaining it and ask questions.
- Watch others play the game before joining in.
As we discussed previously, some of these strategies may be inherently more effective than other strategies. The effectiveness of some of these strategies also depends on your prior knowledge and experience with board or card games. For frequent game players, hopping right into the game and starting to play may be more effective, while for infrequent players that is more likely to harm their learning.
Perhaps the most effective of these, though, is a combination. For example, you might watch others while looking at the rulebook or listening to them explaining the game.
As teachers, we often do this naturally in course design, giving students experience that range across different modalities and ways of engaging with the material. Instead of pigeonholing students into categories of learners, though, this allows us to create engaging and active learning experiences that benefit all learners.
How do you employ multimodality in your course design? What effect does it have on your students? Weigh in through the comments below!
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Kalyuga, Slava, Paul Ayres, Paul Chandler, and John Sweller. “The Expertise Reversal Effect.” Educational Psychologist 38, no. 1 (2003): 23-31, https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_4.
Kirschner, Paul A. and Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer. “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.” Educational Psychologist 48, no. 3 (2013): 169-183, https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395.
Knoll, Abby R., Hajime Otani, Reid L. Skeel, and K. Roger Van Horn. “Learning Style, Judgements of Learning, and Learning of Verbal and Visual Information.” The British Journal of Psychology 108, no. 3 (2017): 544-563, https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12214.
Massa, Laura J. and Richard E. Mayer. “Testing the ATI Hypothesis: Should Multimedia Instruction Accommodate Verbalizer-Visualizer Cognitive Style?” Learning and Individual Differences 16, no. 4 (2006): 321–335, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2006.10.001.
Nancekivell, Shaylene E., Priti Shah, and Susan A. Gelman. “Maybe They’re Born With It, or Maybe It’s Experience: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Learning Style Myth.” Journal of Educational Psychology 112, no. 2 (2020): 221-235, https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000366.
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Rohrer, Doug and Harold Pashler. “Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence?” Medical Education 46, no. 7 (2012): 634-635, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x.
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Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.
You rock, Eva. I so agree. As an early K-12 educator when all of this came out, everyone jumped on board. And my argument was –okay, let’s accommodate their learning style, but let’s stretch them into others so I made a point even then to use all the elements of VARK to teach in my classroom. And there are strategies that can help do just that. For students who struggle with the written word, let them use a strategy like Say Something where they partner and read excerpts, stop and say something and I sometimes also have them draw or create or outline something also so they are using written, auditory, and a visual representation of that document they are reading. Maybe I should see if they can also hop while they do this? No, won’t do that. And those of us who know UDL KNOW that what is good for a person with a disability is good for everyone- UDL works whether it’s curb cuts or instructional design and teaching.
Thanks for the kind words, Lyn! I hadn’t heard of Say Something, but I love that way to weave in multiple modalities. Hopping may be a bit much, though. 😀