Learning Styles and Leprechauns

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

After doing poorly on one of my exams, a student of mine met with me and proclaimed, “I’m a kinesthetic learner, so it’s hard for me to do well in classes that are lecture-based. I learn best when things are hands-on.” This illustrates an idea that we’ve all heard before — namely, that people have individual learning styles and, more specifically, that learning will be maximized if the mode of instruction consistently matches the learning styles of those being instructed. That is, learning should be best when visual learners are instructed visually, auditory learners are instructed auditorily, and so on. The theory of individual learning styles dates back decades and is widely believed by educators, parents, and students alike. It has also become its own industry with no shortage of companies and websites offering services dedicated to the idea.

There’s just one problem: Learning styles don’t exist. There’s no compelling empirical evidence — zero, nada — to support the idea that matching the type of instruction to preferred learning styles improves learning. This conclusion is based on the results of careful and exhaustive analyses of the relevant research (for reviews, see Pashler et al., 2009 and Willingham et al., 2015; full references are included at the end of this article).

Before I go any further, a key distinction needs to be made. Individual learning styles should not be confused with individual differences. It’s clear that people differ with respect to a host of characteristics and abilities. Some individual differences — such as level of prior knowledge, processing speed, and verbal ability — are important considerations when it comes to learning. The idea of individual learning styles, on the other hand, has yet to garner any empirical evidence.

Now, you may be thinking, “Well, just because there’s currently no evidence for the idea doesn’t mean there never will be.” That’s true. In theory, we should all subscribe to the adage, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in practice, it often makes sense to abandon such logic. For example, I don’t believe in magic, unicorns, or leprechauns, not because I can prove their nonexistence, but rather because the lack of evidence justifies my position. If these things existed, we’d surely have ample supporting evidence of them by now. Learning styles should be viewed through the same lens: The lack of evidence leads to the reasonable position that learning styles don’t exist.

Absence of evidence aside, a simple example can illustrate how nonsensical it can be to tailor instruction to one’s preferred learning style. Suppose I wanted to teach you what a harpsichord sounds like. If you claimed to be a visual learner, what should I do? Should I show you the sounds waves the instrument makes? No, of course not! When it comes to learning what a harpsichord sounds like, we’re all auditory learners. Likewise, we’re all visual learners when it comes to learning the shape of the United States. Of course, some instructional topics — for example, changing the oil in a car — lend themselves to being taught through a combination of senses. The point is that how something is taught is often determined by what it taught. Preferences of learning styles should have nothing to do with it.

The way I see it, it’s good news that learning styles theory has no empirical legs on which to stand. It should no longer be used as an excuse to blame teachers (“Maybe my child isn’t doing well in your class because you’re not teaching to his learning style.”) and students should stop using it as an excuse to close themselves off to certain experiences (“I’ll never be a good musician because I’m not an auditory learner.”). Furthermore, we can stop wasting excessive amounts of time and money on a bankrupt idea and instead focus our resources on educational practices that have merit.

Another piece of good news is that decades of research on the science of learning have revealed fundamental learning principles that can be leveraged to improve learning for everyone. Strategies such as retrieval, spacing, and interleaving — a class of strategies known as desirable difficulties — enjoy a wealth of empirical support and can have powerful impacts both inside and outside of the classroom (for more on these strategies, see my article, Want to Make Learning Stick? Make it Harder).

A top priority of our educational system should be to expose educational myths and replace them with evidence-informed practices. The popularity and influence of learning styles theory are not proportional to the evidence in its favor. In fact, there is no evidence in its favor. Individual learning styles, like leprechauns, are a myth.

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Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42, 266–271.