Whichever amount of time you’ve spent in education, you have probably heard of the idea that some students learn better either with visual information, through hearing information, or through doing practical activities. Over the past decades, the idea that people have a "learning style”, and that they learn better when taught in a way that matches this, has been very popular. In 2012, research suggested that 93% of teachers in the UK believed in learning styles.
However, among the research community, this idea is largely thought to be a myth. A vast amount of evidence found little support for the "learning styles” theory, and that using learning styles to teach in schools could even have a negative impact.
But, despite the evidence piling up against learning styles, fascinating new research finds that many people, including those who work in education, still believe in the power of learning styles.
Let’s take a deeper look at this research…
What the research says
This recently published review examined studies between 2009 and 2020, which focused on educators’ and trainee educators’ beliefs in learning styles. The review found that out of 15,000+ educators across the world, 89.1% believed that people learn better when they are taught in line with their learning style.
What’s more, when the review assessed studies measuring actual use of learning styles, they found 79.7% of educators have used or intended to use learning styles in their teaching. To put it simply: the learning styles myth has not gone away.
Other learning myths
Besides the learning styles myth, the education sector is no stranger to neuro-myths.
For example, there’s the myth that we only use 10% of our brains. This is completely untrue, and has not been supported by any scientist. Then there’s the idea that people are either "left-brained" or "right-brained", the first group being rational and objective, giving them strength in subjects like maths and physics, and the second being intuitive and creative, stronger in subjects like English and the arts. In fact, neither hemisphere is solely responsible for one type of personality and subjects strengths. And then there’s the myth that playing brain games makes you smarter, even though there’s no evidence that brain training games improve cognitive function in healthy adults.
What does all this mean?
While some people might argue that we don’t yet know for sure that learning styles don’t exist, an overwhelming amount of evidence certainly points otherwise. Some research explains that not only does learning style-matched teaching not improve learning, but that it could be harmful.
This is because it leads to time, effort and money spent on a likely ineffective teaching practice. Other research has suggested that students may well have “learning preferences” for how they are taught - but what we prefer isn’t necessarily what’s best for us. It’s just like how many students prefer to revise by re-reading and highlighting, these are in fact largely ineffective revision techniques. In any case, there’s a difference between learning preferences and learning styles.
So, researchers are concerned by many teachers’ apparent beliefs in and reliance on learning styles. Given that learning style-matched teaching has little support in the evidence and could even be harmful, teachers might be better off relying on more trustworthy teaching techniques. Some of these include:
- Retrieval Practice - This is anything that gets students to generate answers to questions, from quizzes to practice papers. It has consistently been proven to help students remember information, and to improve academic performance. It is most effective in an informal environment, as opposed to high-pressure testing.
- Spacing and Interleaving - Spacing means studying information little and often, and being sure to re-visit topics. Meanwhile, interleaving involves mixing up the order in which subjects are studied, or mixing up the different types of activities students do, rather than doing everything in a linear order. Research shows both of these methods to improve memory retention and performance.
- Dual Coding - This means using both written and visual information when learning and teaching. In other words, combining words and pictures. Again, evidence supports that this boosts memory retention and recall. So, using visual aids combined with written information can be helpful to anyone, not just “visual learners”.
It’s certainly concerning that neuro-myths such as the learning styles myth continue to pervade the education community. Although it has not yet been truly busted, we would urge teachers to turn their attention to more strongly supported, reliable teaching strategies. We believe they can be confident, for example, in using retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving, and dual coding.