One Reason the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth Persists

1930s line-up of 5 elementary school students in front of blackboard reading books with teacher looking on
Photo: Corbis

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.

It’s a nice idea, but it also appears to be wrong. Over and over, researchers have failed to find any substantive evidence for the notion of learning styles, to the point where it’s been designated a “neuromyth” by some education and psychology experts. And yet it persists — Google around and you’ll find plenty of information about this unsupported concept. One key question, then, is: To what extent have educators themselves gotten the message that the idea of learning styles has been more or less debunked?

For a paper in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Phil Newton of Swansea University decided to put himself in the shoes of an educator trying to make a good-faith effort to understand what the literature says about this subject. What would happen, he wondered, if you searched a couple of big research databases — ERIC and PubMed — for information about learning styles and read the papers that popped up? (Newton only counted those that could be freely accessed, since “if a subscription or payment was required … access to them would vary considerably between individual educators.”)

The results were discouraging. Of the 109 papers that met Newton’s inclusion criteria, “Most (94%) of the current research papers start out with a positive view of Learning Styles, despite the aforementioned research which discredits their use,” he writes. Moreover, a full 89 percent “implicitly or directly endorse the use of Learning Styles in Higher Education.” So even an educator who does the right thing, who takes the time to search for the literature, could easily come to a false conclusion about this stuff. That’s discouraging, and it’s an unfortunate deviation from the scientific ideal that the truth not only emerges (eventually), but that it trickles down to those who benefit most from it. In this case, the trickle appears to be slow — perhaps because learning styles is such an intuitive and nice-seeming concept.

At the end of his paper, Newton offers a pretty straightforward way to chip away at this persistent misconception: 

If you have got this far in reading this perspective, you likely care about education, and about education research. It is in everyone’s interests for educational research and resources — time, money, effort, to be directed toward those educational interventions which demonstrably improve student learning, and away from those which do not. Take a second to run a Google search on your own institution — put in the domain name — or whatever it is, alongside the term “learning styles”. Chances are, something will come up. Start there!

In other words, it’s time for educators themselves to step up and help put this myth to bed.

This post has been updated to clarify why paywalled papers were excluded.

One Reason the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth Persists