It’s a standard idea in teaching practice that students learn through different styles: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic mainly, journalist Sue Osborne writes. This idea is embedded in university teaching, PD and curriculum. Yet there is no scientific evidence to back it. Many experts are now saying that not only is the idea a myth, but categorising students this way does them harm.
In March this year 30 prominent international academics joined forces to publish a letter in The Guardian to debunk the learning styles theory.
Learning styles theory has been around since the ‘70s and is predicated on the idea that some people will learn better if material is presented in a visual way (pictures, graphs, video); others learn best by doing and moving (kinaesthetic) and others through listening (auditory).
These academics included professors from the universities of London, Oxford, Bristol, Harvard, San Diego, Cambridge, Columbia and Frankfurt.
The letter said: “We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported”.
“This belief [learning styles] has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing.
“There have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or ‘meshing’ material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.”
In an article in Teacher magazine Dr Tanya Vaughan, Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, writes: “a staggering 95% of [UK] teachers think learning styles are true”.
IEU member, Ballarat Clarendon College maths and physics teacher, blogger and PhD candidate Greg Ashman writes that common conclusions that teachers draw from learning styles models is that wherever possible, they should aim to teach students in their preferred learning style.
“Professor Hal Pashler and colleagues, reviewing the evidence in 2009, called this the ‘meshing hypothesis’: If a student prefers to learn visually then we should give her visual ways of accessing the content. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any evidence to support this idea. In fact, they found some evidence that directly contradicted it,” Greg writes.
“It is not hard to understand why. Students may prefer certain learning activities over others but this does not necessarily mean that these activities represent the best way to learn everything.
“For instance, a student labelled as a kinaesthetic learner is still likely to gain a better understanding of Australian geography by studying a map than by performing a series of movements. This has led the cognitive scientist Dan Willingham to conclude that the way that students learn something needs to be matched to the content to be learnt rather than the students’ learning styles.
“Cognitive science actually has a lot to offer teachers on ways of presenting content. For instance, we seem to be able to process visual images and spoken words simultaneously and this means that studying a graphic or animation while listening to a commentary can be a powerful way of learning some concepts (see Mayer, 2002). Yet it is equally powerful for all students and not just suitable for a certain grouping,” Greg writes.