The myth of learning styles

Learning styles: Fact or fiction?Welcome to the first post of our series on learning and the brain!  With the federal government’s recent commitments to early childhood education and a project to map the human brain, I can’t think of a better time to begin talking about brains, learning, and education, topics I’ve spent over half a decade researching.

Learning styles, a grand myth
This kick-off post talks about a grand NeuroMyth: learning styles. Familiar to anyone who has ever declared themselves to be a “visual learner,” “kinesthetic learner,” or “auditory learner,” the idea of learning styles is incredibly popular in education, with over 92% of teachers surveyed in Europe reportedly believing in learning styles. (I imagine the numbers are similar in the U.S.)

To get straight to the point, it turns out that despite their popularity, research has not shown that learning styles matter for learning.  Reviews of the literature have either found no positive effects of learning styles, or results so mixed that they can only be considered inconclusive. In other words, there is no convincing evidence that visual learners learn better when seeing information than hearing it or enacting it, etc.

“Whaat?!” Your disbelief (and misbelief) is understandable.  Since many companies base their survival on convincing us that learning styles are legit, we’ve been inundated with pro-learning styles messages.  And more personally, it just feels good to categorize our own styles of learning.  It makes us feel like we know a little more about that squishy, mysterious, powerful blob we call our brains.  Unfortunately, our trust in learning styles is misplaced.

Where do we go from here?  A different kind of customized learning
The learning styles myth has one good underlying assumption: Not all learning happens the same way, so nor should all teaching. This is absolutely true, and acknowledging it lets us create learning situations customized to children’s needs. The question is how.

Rather than thinking about customization based on learning styles, I prefer to ask, “Which learning techniques are best for which learning outcomes?”  For example, the best method for learning a fact is usually different from the best method for learning a concept.

Two techniques to try at home
Here are two tips for customized learning from Professor Daniel Schwartz at Stanford, who also happens to be on Kidaptive’s advisory board and was my and Kidaptive Chief Learning Scientist Dylan Arena’s graduate advisor.

1) Use analogies to teach for understanding.  To help someone understand a difficult concept, draw an analogy to something they already know. For example, you can explain migration to a preschooler by drawing an analogy to coming inside when it gets too cold outside.  Analogies help learners use their existing knowledge to understand a new idea.

2) Use elaboration to teaching for memory.  To help someone remember a piece of information, encourage them to use elaboration, which means expanding on an idea in one’s mind. For example, to remember the password you create for Kidaptive’s (soon-to-be-released!) Parent’s Pad — let’s say it’s “DeliciousChickenWings” — you can use elaboration by thinking,”Leo eats delicious chicken wings while wearing his flying wings.”  This mentally connects your password to other Leo’s Pad knowledge, making it come to mind more readily whenever you think of Leo’s Pad.  Elaboration is much more effective for memory than saying “delicious chicken wings” over and over again.

There’s a lot of research out there showing how to learn and teach effectively. Tailoring methods to different learning outcomes is just one way to approach it. Stay tuned for more ideas on learning, the brain, and customized learning experiences.

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6 responses to “The myth of learning styles”

  1. Robert Clegg says :

    So why is it people gravitate towards some topics rather than others? Why do some students seem to show an ability to work in some fields better than others? In other words, how do you explain those kids that are really good at algebra right out of the box and seem to have no trouble with the concepts while others really struggle?

  2. Robert Clegg says :

    I’m also curious about those that seem to have a better spatial ability than others. Some people can’t find their way around the city even with a mobile map. They have absolutely no sense of direction. Then there are those that have this kind of sixth sense about rebounding in a basketball game. They always seem to know where the ball is going to bounce off the rim and they are always there to get it.

    • Dylan Arena, Ph.D. says :

      Hi Robert,

      These are good questions. As you point out, there are certainly individual differences in people’s abilities along particular cognitive dimensions. (These differences are partly attributable to practice and partly to predisposition.) But those differences aren’t what the “learning styles” myth is about: The myth we’re trying to dispel is that, for example, student A might consistently prefer verbal presentations of concepts in math, language arts, history, etc., while student B prefers visual presentations of *those same concepts*. Much research has looked at whether this is true, but there’s no strong evidence in favor of the idea of “learning styles”.

      Instead, what we’ve found is that student A might favor a visual presentation of one concept (e.g., multiplication) while student B benefits more from a verbal presentation–but then for some other concept, student A might prefer the verbal presentation and student B might better understand the visual presentation. In other words, what works best for one student with one concept might *not* work best for that same student for another concept. One great way to deal with this variability is to expose students to multiple presentations of the same concept–to give them multiple “ways in” to understand the concept.

      Hope this helps to clarify,

  3. Robert Clegg says :

    I’d also like to know what accounts for the preferences and proficiencies in the different genres of video games. Some people are great at puzzle games, extremely fast at seeing patterns in a tight focused area. While others are definitely FPS’ers in Call of Duty or Unreal. While other’s are strategizers in god mode games? What accounts for the various differences and abilities across genres of games?

  4. Robert Clegg says :

    Ahhh, after looking at your curriculum, I’m guessing high schoolers and adults have had better practice and exposure to some elements of learning than others. Therefore they show a proficiency in certain areas as opposed to others.

    So I guess the question would be, if you are trying to teach an adult a certain task or concept, would you be more successful tailoring the approach towards their skilled domains as opposed to making them use underdeveloped skill sets?

    So the “myth” is that learning style is not an inherited trait, it is a learned bias?

    • Dylan Arena, Ph.D. says :

      I think you’re still using the term “learning style” to refer to something other than a preferred modality for receiving information, which is how it’s intended in this piece that Jessica wrote. A learning style in the sense Jessica means is neither a learned bias nor an inherited trait; it’s a misconception! :) The myth is that there *is* a particular modality of information that *always* (or even usually) works better for one particular learner but not another.

      And as for your “application” question about teaching an adult: The key for teaching any learner, adult or child, is to help the learner use his or her prior knowledge to construct new knowledge. (This is the essence of “constructivist learning”, and it involves the psychological principle of “transfer”.) Much ink has been spilled over the past century expanding upon this point and debating nuances, but at its heart it’s a simple, intuitive, and powerful idea (and it’s why the “transmission” model of instruction, which characterizes knowledge as a thing that gets transmitted from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the learner, is fundamentally flawed: Learners’ minds aren’t receptacles for receiving knowledge, they’re factories for building it anew!).

      Hope this helps,

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