Learning Styles aren’t a thing (but they are still useful)

I’m a Kinesethetic-Tactile learning, INTJ, and a Leo

I remember learning something in junior high that turned out not to be true. We spent class time on it; there was supporting text; it was even in my science class, but nonetheless it wasn’t true. What I’m talking about, of course, is the structure of the atom.

More specifically I’m talking about the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. If you haven’t dipped your toes into the basics of atomic theory, or it’s been a little while I can give you a brief refresher. The Bohr-Rutherford model is a method of displaying the electrons as they spin around the centre of an atom as a series of rings. You show the number of electrons by making dots on a series of rings.

A Bohr-Rutherford model of elemental Calcium. It’s a pretty simple diagram, but it’s too simple for deeper thinking about atoms.

As I went further in my education in chemistry I would learn that this was an oversimplification and that there were more accurate, more complicated models but even though the Bohr-Rutherford model was knowingly inaccurate, it was still good for an introduction to the atom.

Likewise it was in junior high that I was first introduced to learning styles. It was the first day of a math class and a teacher had us begin with a quiz. Fortunately for my still summer dazed brain it wasn’t for marks. And even better, it wasn’t even a math quiz at all (sorry math faculty).

Instead it was a double sided test that asked me about myself. Questions about whether I’d fidget when I sat still for periods of time, or how well I could remember a story someone had told me. After we finished shading in the respective answers on the test, I tallied up my score and got my result: I was a kinesthetic-tactile learner.

Unfortunately it took me a lot longer to learn that learning styles were a useful fiction, like the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. Even in basic courses about teaching, you may still learn about learning styles because they’re a very simple tool to illustrate an important principle: allowing learners multiple means to learn the same material will help them learn better.

If I was reading this blogpost a number of years ago, I may have thought of some anecdotal stories of kinesthetic lesson components that helped me better understand the topic, but that happens that a lesson designed to engage with students through multiple means is more likely to be a successful lesson.

As I learned more about teaching, learning styles give way to differentiation and frameworks like Universal Design for Learning (as an extra plug, there’s a UDL conference being hosted by UPEI this year, if you’re interested in learning more about it reach out to us for more information). As we move beyond learning styles, we can abandon the labels and categories that can inadvertently harm learning like how I might’ve only partially paid attention to a spoken lesson because that ‘wasn’t how I learned’. Of course, a lesson that relies on only one media is at risk of disengaging learners but that isn’t because they are only able to learn by seeing things.

(if you’d like a little bit more of an explanation about the myth of learning styles you can check out this article which links to a number of supporting studies if you’d really like to dig deep).

So what does learning styles being a myth mean for teaching? It means we don’t need to label learners as auditory, visual, or KT the way that Buzzfeed might tell you whether or not you’re an introvert or an extrovert. However, we still have to design lessons thinking about the information and experiences we want to present to the learners, and the ways we invite learners to engage with these lessons.

If you’re interested in discussing options for differentiation in your course you’re always welcome to reach out to us at elearning@upei.ca