The Learning Styles Neuromyth

For several years, I had the privilege of teaching LIBA 103, Strategies for Academic Success, as part of Grand View’s Freshman Academy program. The class was designed to introduce academically “at-risk” students to the demands–intellectual and otherwise–of collegiate education, and build a foundation for future academic success. I designed my sections with an emphasis on consistent writing, reflection, and metacognitive learning for my students. My guiding assumption, informed by some of the best teaching and learning research, was that the more metacognition–learning how to learn–I could get my students engaging in, the better.

The premise was a solid one, but my execution was not. Much of the work I had my students do in the early portions of the course involved discerning their particular “learning style.” The learning-style concept was (and in a lot of places, still is) a really popular and widely-used pedagogical trope in both K-12 and higher education:

For a while, the notion that different students have different “learning styles” was pretty hot in educational settings. In one popular formulation of this idea, there are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. A kinesthetic learner, for example, will learn more effectively by carrying out physical educational tasks than by listening to a lecture or receiving other types of “traditional” education. What all these theories have in common is the notion that an individual student’s success will be predicated not just on their own effort and ability, but on their teacher’s ability to identify and cater to their individual learning style.

I then provided them opportunities to reflect on how they might structure their academic activities and studying to match their learning style and thus maximize their learning. We used the VARK (Visual-Auditory-Reading/Writing-Kinesthetic) inventory to do our initial assessment of what type of learners they were, and then went from there with our reflection and strategy. Sounds like a great way to get students thinking about learning, right? What a great way to build in a personalized approach to metacognition! That’s what I thought, at least. But it turns out that I thought wrong. The concept of “learning styles,” it turns out, is what educational researchers and cognitive psychologists call a “neuromyth.” It’s a “brain science”-sounding concept that appears reasonable on the surface, but falls apart under serious scrutiny.

My students’ VARK results were the first clue that something might be amiss with the theory I was using. Most of them were “multimodal” learners, according to the instrument; that is, they didn’t have one clear style but rather “learned best” through a blend of two, three, or even all four of them. “What are we supposed to do with this?” they asked. Others got results that they intuitively knew were inaccurate: “This thing says I’m a auditory learner, but I know that’s not right–I need to read and see things to understand them!” I was flummoxed; my carefully-designed structure for metacognitive learning was crumbling before my eyes. MY SYLLABUS! MY BEAUTIFUL SYLLABUS! IT’S DOOOOOMED!

This was years ago, before I started seriously researching teaching and learning. If I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. What the research shows (and there’s a ton of it–see this summary for an introduction) is that while students can certainly have learning preferences, the idea of a particular typology of styles is problematic.

…supporters of fixed traits and abilities argue that a valid and reliable measure is a sound basis for diagnosing individuals’ learning needs and then designing specific interventions to address them, both at the level of individual self-awareness and teacher activity. This, however, might lead to labeling and the implicit belief that traits cannot be altered. It may also promote a narrow view of ‘matching’ teaching and learning styles that could be limiting rather than liberating.

My experiences in LIBA 103 confirmed this assertion; rather than creating an opportunity for reflection and metacognition for more students, asking them to talk about their “learning style” created cognitive dissonance for most of them. They didn’t want to brainstorm ways of studying or engaging with course material that seemed like they’d work better for someone else. Moreover, they argued, the idea that they could have one set of tools for all of their academic work didn’t make sense. Studying math was different than studying literature, and they worked on Biology differently than they did Composition. That jibes with the research on the learning styles myth, which suggests a better way to approach metacognitive reflection is via “learning preferences,” with the understanding that those preferences are heavily context-dependent.

Once we removed the VARK straitjacket, my students were able to engage in really good and meaningful discernment about their learning strategies and opportunities for modification based upon a wider array of considerations than one inventory. But more and more, I encounter students who were “tested” for their “learning style” in high school, and they arrive at college with a preconceived notion that there is only one way, regardless of context, in which they can effectively learn. That’s a problem. And even if they haven’t been formally grounded in learning-styles language, many of them still cling to the notion that there’s only one “real” way that they can learn.

As we continue to emphasize first-year experiences and student success at Grand View, then, we ought to think about what the science of learning tells us and our students. We should absolutely be providing opportunities for reflective learning and metacognition, but accompany those opportunities with the realization that student learning needs to be approached as something that’s flexible, often context-specific, and evolutionary in its nature. The same should be true for our teaching, then. What my ill-fated and uninformed foray into “learning styles” taught me was that there is no one-size-fits-all model for teaching and learning. That sounds obvious in retrospect, but in the midst of teaching a complex and challenging course, it can be easy to overlook the obvious.

If you’re interested in what learning science can tell us, and how it can inform our teaching, be sure to make plans to attend this year’s Summer Institute. James Lang, author of a brand-new book on this very topic, will share some of his findings with us. The institute is on May 24-26, and you can register by clicking on this link.


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