A nasal learner struggles with an odorless textbook.
At a recent conference I attended, a presenter committed blasphemy. He suggested that learning styles were a MYTH. There were audible gasps from the crowd. I felt my blood pressure start to rise and decided to lead the rebellion against this wickedness. After all, I know my learning style; I know the learning styles of my children, and I tutor law students respecting their learning styles. On a break at the conference, I volunteered to speak at the conference next year with a presentation to counter this sacrilege.
After I returned from the conference, I decided to see if there was ANY science behind this concept. With one Google search, I found there was A LOT of science behind this concept. How did I not know this? Well, I’m not alone.
The belief that people learn in different ways is a prevalent belief in American culture. The idea of learning styles is a century-old concept but grew in popularity in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, Neil Fleming developed the VARK questionnaire, 16 questions to establish someone’s learning style. VARK stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic.” While there were those that identified learning styles before Fleming, VARK is the most-used model today.
Some experts believe the ideas around learning styles spread as a result of the self-esteem movement. Teachers like to think they can reach every student. Students like to blame academic failures on a teacher that doesn’t adapt to their learning style. Today, one survey suggests that 90% of college students believe in learning styles, and likewise, 90% of teachers believe in learning styles.
However, scientists have debunked learning styles for some time. There is evidence that establishes people are not one type of learner. Students use multiple learning styles, but no single style resulted in better outcomes.
Researchers Polly Hussman and Valerie Dean O’Louglin from Indiana University School of Medicine asked hundreds of college students to take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner the students were, and the students were then given study strategies that correlated to the identified learning style. The study concluded that not only did the students not study in ways that reflected their learning style, the students that adopted the strategies supporting their learning style didn’t do better on their tests. Further, the research established that students fall into certain study habits that, once formed were too hard to break.
Another study concludes that those that believe they are visual learners just like pictures more than words, and those that believe they are auditory learners just liked hearing words more. These preferences had no correlation to what the learners remembered. “…there’s evidence that people do try to treat tasks in accordance with what they believe to be their learning style, but it doesn’t help them,” says Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “…learning styles have not panned out.”
Even the satirical-humor site, The Onion, has addressed learning styles. The headline of the article: “Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum.” A quote from the article: “My 15-year-old daughter Chloe couldn’t sustain her interest in academics and, as a result, she would goof off with her friends and get in trouble,” said Michael Sweeney of Oswego, NY. “Now I realize that all those Ds and Fs did not represent any failure on my daughter’s part, but rather her school’s failure to provide an appropriate nasal-based curriculum.” While ironic, this satire is not that far off.
Cognitive science has identified varied techniques that support retaining knowledge: spacing study sessions over time, experience the material in multiple modalities, and do practice tests. Sounds like good, old-fashioned hard work to me.
What’s the takeaway for those that provide continuing education? Present materials in multiple ways—use a balanced approach in presenting ideas. Do not minimize a human’s ability to learn by identifying a single way to present information. Use a potpourri of presentation approach, and you are bound to provide the balance every learner needs.
Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor Based Curriculum, The Onion, March 15, 2000
The Problem with ‘Learning Styles,’ Scientific American, May 29, 2018
‘Neuromyth’ or Helpful Model?, Inside Higher Ed, January 9, 2019
The Myth of ‘Learning Styles,’ The Atlantic, April 11, 2018