Are Learning Styles Useful?

Every teacher already knows that each student learn differently from his or her peers. In the last couple of decades a theory emerged that a few key learning styles could explain and define some of those differences in how children learn. We even published this infographic here a couple of years ago that explored the idea:

The seven learning styles described are based on Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences. In defense of his work, Gardner himself emphasizes that what he described in his original work weren’t learning styles, but rather different facets of how each mind works. Nonetheless, his ideas have gone on to inspire discussions, infographics, teaching theories and quizzes all based around trying to pin down a clearer understanding of the different ways people learn.

How Not to Use Learning Styles

“Learning styles” has become a controversial term due to the fear that it can lead to harmful or reductive ways of thinking about how we approach teaching and learning. In the worst case scenario, students would be identified as one “type” of learner, and never exposed to other modalities. Most of the risks associated with pigeonholing learners can be easily avoided.

Don’t Let Them Limit Your Idea of an Individual

Very few people would look at an infographic like the one above and decide that every student fits neatly into one of the learning styles. Each student displays a mix of these learning styles, but most show greater strengths in some of them in comparison to others.

Teachers can certainly find value in better understanding the strengths of each student. That recognition can help you understand which assignments a student is likely to enjoy the most and which ones they may perform well on, but it also lets you know the types of work it would be good for them to get more practice in. Even if watching a video might not be the form of learning that works best for them, learning by video is still a worthwhile skill for them to learn.

Don’t Trust Teaching to Learning Styles to Lead to Results

Learning styles have been a popular idea in the teaching sphere for long enough that we’ve had time to test it. The results haven’t been great. Most of the evidence suggests that people don’t actually learn better if they stick to their preferred learning style. Having many options of ways to learn is largely a good thing, but sticking to one exclusively doesn’t seem to help learn or retain information..

Don’t Assume Every Student Should Stick with the Way They Prefer

Part of the problem may be that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think. The way a person prefers to learn isn’t necessarily the way they learn best.  To complicate things further, the way a student learns best in one subject could be entirely different than how they do in another – and which they prefer in each could have no bearing on the actual results.

Can Learning Styles Be Useful?

In spite of all the criticisms and contrary evidence, thinking in terms of learning styles can provide a benefit to teachers.  Daniel Willingham, a professor from the University of Virginia who has published criticisms of an over reliance on the idea, suggests that it can still be useful as a form of inspiration.

If you were to take the infographic above and change the language a tad so it addressed “Teaching Styles,” that could do away with much of the controversy. Bringing lessons that work different parts of the mind and allow students to learn in different ways is undoubtedly a positive.

Technology has made providing a mix of lesson types that speak to these different categories easier than ever. We’ve explored a number of the possibilities before, including many that mix multiple of the learning possibilities into one assignment:

Visual and Verbal This post by Weda Bory describes several strategies she’s made use of that mix writing skills with photography skills. By combining the two, students get a double dose of learning styles all at once.

Aural and Visual TED Talks scratch both the audio and video itch and the library of available videos has grown so that it’s easy to bring them into courses on any number of subjects.

Physical and Social: Projects that focus on building something both give students physical hands-on experience with a new skill and often provide an opportunity to work together.

Solitary, Textual, and (Sometimes) Social:  Our post on ways to get students reading tackles techniques that involve students spending some time alone with the text, as well as more collaborative efforts teachers can use to bring books into the classroom in innovative ways.

Social and Logical: Debates and discussions, like those described in our post on creativity, can get students thinking logically and give them a rich opportunity to learn from each other.

In Short

Clearly, the examples above are just a tiny portion of the ways that these ideas can be applied in the classroom. We didn’t even get into some of the more obvious options like assigning podcasts or having students create blogs that mix multimedia elements. You have endless options when it comes to giving assignments and doing presentations that mix all these different ways of learning and thinking. As long as you treat these categories as inspiration rather than a limitation, they can take your teaching practice far.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Katie Lepi and ran on November 27, 2012. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Kristen Hicks update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.

4 Comments

  1. paul

    November 12, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    Again with discounted and unsupported theories? Seems like learning styles just won’t die, in spite of the lack of evidence.

  2. Ryan

    November 15, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Paul it seems like the post is not really supporting learning styles but rather just saying to use them as tools.

    The post kind of points out the obvious that one way of teaching doesn’t work for everyone but I thought it was interesting that there is actual evidence that someones preferred way of being taught is not necessarily the best way.

  3. Josie Holford

    December 21, 2015 at 1:54 pm

  4. Russ D

    February 8, 2016 at 8:49 am

    learning styles concepts and evidence; pashler
    laplab.ucsd.edu/articles/Pashler_et_al_2009PSPI.pdf
    “We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.”

    The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education, newton
    http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908/full
    “Despite this complexity, there are some concepts in education for which there is abundant clear evidence to show that they are not effective. One of these is Learning Styles, such as the ‘VAK’ classification, which classifies individuals as one or more of ‘Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic’ learners (Geake, 2008). Other classifications include those by (separately) Kolb, Felder and Honey and Mumford; in total there are over 70 different classification systems (Coffield et al., 2004).”