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Learning styles: reviewing the evidence

Evidence for learning styles and learning.
picture of a microscope
© University of Nottingham 2019 except for third party materials or where otherwise indicated

The original learning styles idea was based on the hypothesis that teaching, or more specifically, the instruction learners receive, could be more effective if it took in to account the individual’s learning style. For example, people who are ‘visual learners’ will learn better if teaching material or instruction emphasises visual ways of presenting information, and people who are ‘auditory learners’ will learn best by listening. Given the potential implications of this hypothesis, much research has explored this idea.

A review of the research on learning styles published in 2008, concluded that: ‘It remains to be demonstrated that the classification of students’ learning styles has any practical utility’. In other words, there is no evidence that learning in your preferred style makes learning more effective.

Take a look at this video hosted by YouTube which explains the myth of learning styles in a bit more detail:

Learning styles – a complete myth

The video describes how the idea of learning styles was developed in the 1970s. The idea is that we all have a preferred learning style – for example, by reading, listening or watching – and that people are likely to learn more effecively if they learn in their preferred style.

In fact, there is no evidence that learning in one’s preferred style leads to more effective learning. The evidence does suggest that every student has different abilities, interests and background knowledge. If a student is good at something, e.g. reading, they tend to like learning in that ‘style’, but it does not make the learning more effective.

Despite research demonstrating the myth of learning styles and their impact on learning, up to 90% of teachers still believe learning styles are important for effective learning, and you can find all sorts of information perpetuating learning styles on the Internet.

So – if learning styles are not helpful, what is?

Discussion point

  • Take a moment to think about ways of learning that are likely to be more effective than others.

Reference

Pasher H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D & Bjork R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest; 9(3): 105–119.

© University of Nottingham 2019 except for third party materials or where otherwise indicated
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