Different learning styles are a myth

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.

It’s not hard to understand the popularity of the idea. We live in a society that values and respects diversity and individual differences. As educators we are perhaps at the vanguard of inclusiveness.

Just a fad

Professor and Associate Dean Stephen Dinham of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne told IE that learning styles was a “fad” that had been around so long it had taken root in people’s minds and was hard to dislodge.

“A lot of us have been saying for a long time now that learning styles are not valid, but the enthusiasm for it has drowned that out,” Professor Dinham said.

“Let’s face it, a lot of people have made a lot of money out of this. I gave up counting after I found 70 different models of learning styles.

“Google ‘learning styles’ and see how any items come up, yet the vast majority are not research based.

“When I talk to people about the use of learning styles they say ‘it doesn’t matter’ but in fact it matters a lot.”

Professor Dinham said categorising students as having particular learning styles was constraining the way they developed, the tasks they took on and the idea of themselves as learners.

Greg writes: “There are other potential problems with categorising students in this way. Young people tend to enjoy activities that they are good at. A student might identify as a kinaesthetic learner because she struggles at reading and therefore does not enjoy it very much. If a teacher then uses this evidence to give that student less reading to complete then the gap between her reading ability and that of her peers is only likely to grow.

“As Coffield and colleagues note, many learning styles models don’t appear to be neutral or value free. Who, for instance, would wish to be a ‘non reflective activist’? These models could lead to teachers labelling students in damaging ways. Teachers might talk of the difficulty they have in engaging ‘the kinaesthetic learners’. Students, too, may start to self identify with these category labels and give up quickly or not even attempt something that they feel is beyond them. We may also find that learning style categories are not spread evenly across ethnic or gender groupings, solidifying any nascent bias.”

Categorising or miscategorising a student is a waste of school and teacher resources and time, Professor Dinham said.

“It powerfully constrains their future learning and the choices they make at school and beyond.

“It creates stereotypes. There’s a view out there, and it’s a myth, that Aboriginal students learn best by doing things with their hands and are good at physical activities such as sport.

“In fact you get the same range of abilities in this group of people as any. It is in fact racist and it ends up being a self fulfilling prophecy.

“If you tell people they are only good at one thing, that’s what they will become.”

Greg writes: “Given the potential problems, we might imagine that learning styles would have been confined to the dustbin of history a long time ago. So why do eminent professors feel the need to write letters to newspapers, warning of this myth?”

Professor Dinham said when he presents on this around the country, pointing out that there is no scientific rigour, research or evidence to back any of this up, some teachers become upset because the idea is so embedded in their psyche.

“It is still being taught to teaching students at some universities.”

Greg writes: “Although the message is starting to get out there, it is still pretty easy to find plenty of examples of learning styles models on school websites or in university handbooks.

“For instance, Victoria University’s 2017 College of Education handbook contains multiple references. This perhaps reflects a feeling among many involved in research that education needs to be more student centred rather than teacher led.

“Perhaps forcing teachers to reflect on students’ supposed learning styles will help achieve this aim. And for many teachers, learning styles are part of their approach to differentiation; the process of adapting teaching to the needs of their students.

“The identification of learning styles has been encouraged in the past by those who write about differentiation and by popular differentiation approaches such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

“It’s not hard to understand the popularity of the idea. We live in a society that values and respects diversity, the individual and individual differences. As educators we are perhaps at the vanguard of inclusiveness, keen to make our schools welcoming places for all of our students.

“We want to show that we recognise the children in front of us as unique human beings. As large institutions, schools are keen to reassure parents that they will meet their children’s particular and specific needs and discussing learning styles is a powerful way to do this.

“Yet it is now time to heed the evidence that learning styles are at best, neutral and at worst, harmful. Yes, children are all unique and special but that should give us even more of a reason to pause before attempting to shoehorn them into arbitrary categories. Let’s put the learning styles myth to bed.”

Professor Dinham refers to neuroscientist Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth’ mindsets, which promote learning, rather than a ‘fixed mindset’ or seeing one’s abilities as an entity.

Reliance on learning styles for teaching encourages a fixed mindset, he said.

“We need to be assessing students as individual learners and using evidence based interventions to assist them.

“We should be teaching for meaning. That’s how learning gets into long term memory and can be applied for further learning and achievement.

“In medicine you have to prove something works with clinical trials before you can use it on the general population.

“In education we have it backwards, we start using a theory or strategy then see whether it works.

“Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm. A case in point is learning styles.”







Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.

Mayer, R. E. (2002). Multimedia learning. Psychology of learning and motivation, 41, 85-139.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Willingham, D. T. (2005). Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction. American Educator, 29(2), 31-35.