Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Education: Learning styles debunked

The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools.

But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

Unfortunately, the answer is no, according to a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning -- Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles) -- reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as "auditory learners" and "visual learners"), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment.

If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design. Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students' best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

Education: Learning styles debunked


  1. Many people conclude that if something is not proven then it must be wrong.

    Please consider what the the only other option must be if different learning styles are not true. Then there must be Zero or One learning style.

    Now it seems to me that there must at least one learning style and my gut level instinct is that it varies for an individual depending on the subject matter. I wouldn't want to learn art history by an audio method , music by a visual method and please let me have some kind of kinetic instruction to learn how to play volleyball.

    I am all with you that people that have different learning style programs are full of bunk.

  2. Hi:

    This blog is making me giggle. The need for so much proof becomes quite tiresome. I am dyslexic and hyperlexic and when I was diagnosed at age 45 that I was dyslexic I was told there is nothing that can be done. That wasn't acceptable so I began exploring and found lots of ways helping myself that were "outside the box" Then twenty years later I was retested and found to be both dyslexic and hyperlexic and again used outside the box, unproven, techniques that have been very helpful. So, I come down on, do what seems to work and stop when it doesn't.
    You can learn more about my story on

  3. Thanks for your feedback. The need for validation from the scientific community seems to be uppermost in people's minds today and it can even seem to override their own experiences.

    Our own perception of reality is valid and the one we use on a daily basis to live our lives.