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Fact or Fiction? The Myth That We Have Specific Learning Styles, Debunked

This post is part of a learning sciences blog series debunking common myths in K–12 education. Read the introductory blog post in the series here.

Have you ever tried explaining a new concept to someone, and the person you’re speaking to suddenly replies, “Well, I’m a visual learner!” as an explanation of why they aren’t understanding? That puts you in an awkward situation. Do you grab a paper and a pen or try to verbally explain it again in a new, clearer way? 

As a learning scientist, I know that we all benefit from having images along with text and that many of us can successfully follow along to news radio and storytelling podcasts. Although quite widespread, the concept that outcomes improve if instruction matches a predominant learning style is a myth. I recently dug into learning styles research to find out more, and I want to share with you some alternative approaches to tailoring to create more rigorous, aligned, motivating, and personal learning experiences.

A Look at Studies About the Learning Styles Myth 

Studies have shown that at least 90% of teachers believe in the myth of learning styles: the idea that students have different learning styles—with the most popular being the visual/auditory/kinesthetic trio—and that students perform better when teachers tailor instruction to their predominant style; for instance, by delivering instruction orally for auditory learners, visually for visual learners, or hands-on for kinesthetic learners.

See HMH Learning other tweets here.

Cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia Daniel Willingham has a number of helpful explanations about why the learning styles myth seems to stick with people. Willingham explains that we have systems for auditory memory, visual memory, and muscle memory in the brain, and one may be stronger or weaker than another. People tend to interpret this memory strength as a “predominant learning style,” and that is where we get into trouble. These strengths don’t hold up when we put meaning to the sound or image or motion that relies on other parts of the brain to hold, recall, and apply to new situations. 

Perhaps because of the theory’s attractiveness, there have been a lot of studies focused on learning styles. While examining much of this available research, Harold Pashler and his colleagues found that very few of those studies used research methods that could prove causality—instead, the studies explored relationships. Ironically, many of the experimental studies showed results that contradicted the myth! Looking at objective research is important because we can easily be swayed by confirmation bias, interpreting evidence from how we learn new things in a way that confirms our perceived style and reinforces the myth.

Why You Should Listen to the Learning Styles Research

If I believe that I learn best using only one mode of instruction, I may dismiss methods or strategies that conflict with that mode even though they may help me learn. Similarly, teachers may not present me with information in ways that could have been helpful due to assumptions about how I learn best. This fixed mindset (thinking “I can’t learn this”) can have a spiraling negative effect. Instead, responsive teaching would leverage multiple modalities (e.g., text, images, video, sound, hands-on activities) and support students’ individual variability (all of the factors that make us different) to support a growth mindset.

What to Think About When Designing Lessons for Students

Let’s use HMH’s Learning Science Pillars (RAMP: Rigorous, Aligned, Motivating, and Personal) to zoom in on how we can leverage responsive teaching to deepen learning. 

RIGOROUS: Learners need rigorous instruction and practice opportunities that involve interactive experiences and leverage multiple modalities to apply knowledge across settings and contexts.

Teaching and assessing in multiple modalities will provide a variety of exposure types for all students and support deeper learning. You should also choose modalities that best match the content you are trying to deliver. Although all lessons may not be conducive to a “hands-on” experience, we want lessons to be interactive and engaging by using questions and demonstrations. Turn-and-talks or think-pair-shares can refresh learners’ attention and support their interaction with the information stream. 

ALIGNED: Learners need materials in which all lesson objects (scripts, text, images, video, titles, etc.) are tightly aligned with the learning objectives. 

Visuals can be powerful, but if they are not aligned with your lesson objectives, they can be distracting. Similarly, humor or storytelling can impair learning if not well-aligned with the learning objectives. Have in mind how you will be assessing students’ understanding. Then, look back at your lesson plans and check that your text, images, and activities all support students getting to your rigorous learning goals. 

MOTIVATING: Learners need to have materials that build intrinsic motivation by supporting students’ sense of relevance to their culture, interests, and needs.

By offering learning opportunities that leverage multiple modalities and contexts, you will be more likely to overlap with students’ interests and culture. Considering how many students you have in your class, offering four different ways of exploring a concept will increase the likelihood that at least one of those methods will stick with each of your students. Providing students with options to choose from will also support their intrinsic motivation. 

PERSONAL: Learners need environments that strengthen the teacher’s understanding of each student’s individual characteristics, which enables tailored instruction.

A strong data feedback loop between the teacher and the student can support your planning for both whole-class and differentiated instruction. The better you know your students, the stronger outcomes you’ll see.

RAMP-Friendly Tool

Using grade and subject area as a filter, Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Project includes a free online tool that translates the complex science into bite-sized explanations and related applicable strategies for multiple grades and subjects. Thank you Dr. Medha Tare for all your work leading the creation of this tool.

Sample Literacy Strategy

“For learners with low Working Memory, graphic organizers structure and hold onto the information for them. When learners record and review their notes in graphic organizers, they are able to recall this information more easily because they have repeatedly worked with it. This helps develop their Inferencing skills, as learners can more easily connect information across reading and with their own Background Knowledge.”

Remember, don’t try to do everything at once! In order to engage in a continuous improvement model, just choose one or two areas of focus at a time. Identify goals, decide how you will measure progress, and start trying, reflecting, and revising your practice. 


Blog originally posted on HMH’s blog Shaped