Teach the Learner – Not the Style

Individual learners are different—if we can make an uncontroversial claim about teaching, surely it is this. In any classroom, students will have a range of interests, backgrounds, and abilities. But do people also have different learning styles? And if so, do we learn better when instruction is tailored to our preferred style?

Many people would answer yes—by some measures, more than 90 percent of teachers accept a version of the learning styles hypothesis (Goldhill, 2016). Theorists have proposed dozens of learning styles and dichotomies: globalist versus analyst, sensing versus intuiting, converger versus diverger (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004, p. 136). Numerous tools exist for helping people diagnose whether they prefer to learn by seeing, hearing, or touching; independently or in groups; autonomously or while supervised. The VARK Questionnaire identifies learners as visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic, or multimodal. The Dunn and Dunn Inventory guides people to consider how environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological factors affect their learning. The Kolb Inventory identifies nine learning styles—including acting, imagining, and initiating—and also assesses a learner’s flexibility, or ability to adapt to different situations.

Evidence . . . or Lack Thereof

The diverse terminology can make learning styles difficult to discuss, let alone study. Yet scientists have found ways to test the learning style hypothesis, and the results strongly suggest that learning styles are a myth. More precisely, people might indeed prefer to learn visually or aurally or kinesthetically—they might believe they learn better when taught in their preferred style—but there is little evidence to support this belief.

  • In a 2004 review of 13 influential learning-style models, a team of researchers led by Frank Coffield concluded, “We still do not know . . . ‘the costs and benefits of designing classroom methods and procedures based on learning styles versus continuing to do what is already done.’ That type of knowledge is essential before any large-scale reforms of pedagogy on the basis of learning styles are contemplated.” (p. 144)
  • In a 2008 review of available literature on learning styles, a team of researchers led by Harold Pashler concluded that “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.” (p. 105)
  • In a 2015 summary of research into learning styles, Daniel Willingham and two colleagues concluded, “There is reason to think that people view learning styles theories as broadly accurate, but, in fact, scientific support for these theories is lacking. We suggest that educators’ time and energy are better spent on other theories that might aid instruction.”

Better Approaches

Willingham emphasizes the importance of tailoring instruction to content (Riener & Willingham, 2010). Using a mix of print texts, images, and audio and video recordings can be very effective, but not because some students are visual learners, some are aural learners, and others are reader/writers. Rather, certain topics lend themselves to certain instructional modes: to study geography, look at maps; to study poetry, read poems aloud; to study cooking, physically prepare the meal. Of course, the process of learning is messier than such tips might suggest. In her keynote for the 2010 International Lilly Conference on College Teaching, Linda B. Nilson stresses that a person learns best when exposed to content multiple times through multiple senses. In other words, don’t just read a poem aloud: read it on the page, diagram its structure, discuss your response, write an original poem in the same style, and find music or images that convey similar moods or themes.

Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences—first published in 1983—may at first glance seem to be another version of the learning styles hypothesis, wants educators to drop the term “styles” altogether (Strauss, 2013). “We all have the multiple intelligences,” he argues, though for any learner certain intelligences may be more strongly developed. In contrast, Gardner finds the concept of learning styles “incoherent” due to the tendency of theorists to advise presenting all content in a learner’s preferred style. The implication is that, ironically, proponents of learning styles are themselves guilty of a one-size-fits-all approach to education. To truly individualize instruction, teachers must be able to teach a concept in a variety of ways to each individual in the class.