‘Learning styles’ myth damaging our education system

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, July 20, 2022
‘Learning styles’ myth damaging our education system

During the summer break, most parents and students in Canada are likely thinking little about the classroom. But one of the most widely accepted education theories—that everyone has a unique learning style—should provide food for thought, for the next schoolyear and beyond.

According to this theory, some people are visual learners, others are auditory learners, while others are tactile-kinaesthetic learners, meaning students need to manipulate or touch materials. Proponents say teachers should adapt their lessons for each student’s learning style. Show lots of pictures to visual students, give verbal explanations to auditory students, and provide lots of hands-on activities for tactile-kinaesthetic students.

It makes intuitive sense. There’s just one problem; the concept of individual learning styles—applied to the general student population, beyond learners with special needs—appears to be a myth.

Even though opinion surveys show that most adults and nearly all teachers believe in individual learning styles, it remains a theory without supporting evidence. In fact, the considerable evidence that exists directly contradicts this theory.

It’s not hard to test this theory out. Take a large group of people and divide them according to their supposed learning styles. Let half of them experience a story through their preferred learning style while the other half experience the same story in a different way. Each group then takes a test to determine how much they remember about the story.

This experiment has been carried out multiple times and the results are always the same—there’s no statistically significant difference between the people who learned something according to their so-called learning style versus those who did not. The individual learning styles theory is little more than an urban legend—again, a myth.

Interestingly, professional psychologists have for years made significant efforts to correct these public misconceptions. The American Psychological Association (APA) website, for instance, provides links to several articles debunking this theory.

Nevertheless, the learning styles myth is far from harmless because it perpetuates a falsehood about how students learn. Categorizing students as visual, auditory or tactile-kinaesthetic learners is a sure-fire way to make it harder for students to learn things in different ways. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that tends to come true in the end.

For example, someone who believes they’re a visual learner now has a ready-made excuse for why they cannot pay attention during lectures and why they don’t do well on tests in lecture courses. Similarly, those who think they are tactile-kinaesthetic learners quickly come to believe they cannot learn new things unless they’re working with their hands.

In addition, trying to plan for each student’s so-called learning style creates a huge burden for teachers. Instead of creating one lesson for the entire class, teachers must come up with at least three—sometimes even more—lessons. This is sometimes called differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction, a common expectation placed on teachers by school boards, is largely built on the premise of individual learning styles. Since the theory is a myth, it’s important to reevaluate the widespread push for differentiated instruction.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean teachers should teach everything exactly the same way. While people do not have individual learning styles, some topics are better suited for certain methods than others. For example, a good teacher will probably use plenty of pictures and models when teaching young students about shapes and patterns. For other topics, such as learning how to pronounce certain words, the teacher will provide plenty of verbal instruction and practice.

And some topics are best taught by a combination of visual, auditory and tactile-kinaesthetic approaches. When teaching about the solar system, for example, it makes sense to give students pictures of the planets, provide a detailed verbal description, and let them work with an accurate physical model of the solar system. This makes far more sense than pigeonholing students into individual learning styles groups.

Simply put, teachers should be free to provide whole-class lessons to the greatest extent possible. The nature of the content being taught would largely determine the delivery method for each lesson. Not only would this be a more efficient use of teacher time, but it would also help students learn more effectively.

It’s time we recognize that there are no visual learners, auditory learners or tactile-kinaesthetic learners. There are only learners. The learning styles myth should be abandoned.

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