Do Learning Styles Really Exist?

An original illustration of a young girl in an orange hoodie sitting at the desk and working on her homework studies.

What Are Learning Styles?

 

I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase, “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m an auditory learner.” But what do these learning styles mean? And how do we know whether they are accurate?

Learning styles are preferred methods of having information presented. The commonly held belief about this is that by having material presented in this way, you will learn better. Some examples of learning styles include:

  1. Visual – Visual learning style involves using pictures, videos, diagrams, charts, etc., to learn a concept.
  2. Auditory – Auditory learning style involves listening to speeches and reading in order to learn new material.
  3. Kinesthetic – Kinesthetic learning style involves performing hands-on experiments and demonstrations to learn a concept.

The Truth About Learning Styles

 

An illustration of a young girl in an orange hoodie sitting at the desk and working on her homework studies.
An original illustration of a young girl in an orange hoodie sitting at the desk and working on her homework studies. By Masha Pankratieva

A common misconception about learning styles is that all students belong to any one of these categories, and that they each have their own supposed “most effective way” to learn. However, numerous studies have shown that this isn’t the case. According to the University of Kansas, studies show that “matching instructional mode to a student’s supposedly identified ‘learning style’ does not produce better learning outcomes.”1 One study showed that after having graduate anatomy students take a questionnaire to determine their learning style, they did not perform better or worse when using this preferred method of learning.2 This shows that learning styles aren’t always the most effective way to learn new material.

Also, the idea that students can have a single learning preference may not be applicable in all classes; different subjects require different methods of teaching.3 For example, you most likely wouldn’t see an English teacher doing many hands-on activities, and there probably aren’t many science teachers who teach by reading directly from a textbook. However, teachers often have multiple ways of demonstrating a concept. Homework is a great example; you learn by listening or watching, then by doing the homework assignments to see how well you understand the material. By just using one mode of learning, you won’t be able to assess how well you understand the material. Using multiple learning styles, you can have a better understanding of the material itself as well as a better understanding of how well you know the subject.

 

Is Using Multiple Learning Styles the Answer?

 

The next logical question that comes to mind is: if learning styles don’t work, then what does? The answer is that the use of multiple learning styles has been proven as the most effective way to learn. According to the University of Arkansas, students who use multiple learning styles “learn more quickly and at a deeper level so that recall at a later date will be more successful.”4

I used to work as a tutor, helping elementary and middle school students understand math. A major part of our training was that if one method of teaching didn’t work, try another. More often than not, students would be able to understand the concept better after presenting the material in multiple ways.

One of our most frequently used tools was a number line: we would draw and demonstrate how we can get from one number to the next while explaining the process to them orally. Then, we would hand them the marker and let them try it. If we just demonstrated what was happening without explaining the process, they wouldn’t be any better off than they were before. Likewise, if we had simply explained orally, they would be as confused as kindergarteners in a graduate physics class! It’s a combination of all of the different modes of learning that truly helps to reinforce information in the child’s mind.

 

How Does This Myth Affect Students?

 

Not only is using learning styles an ineffective strategy for learning, but it can also have negative effects on students. Researcher Shaylene Nancekivell, PhD, noted that educators of young children using teaching methods involving specific learning styles can be harmful in the long run since the educators are building a poor foundation for the students.5 If students grow accustomed to using their assumed learning style, then this will cause them to build bad habits that will be harder to break in the future. Even if they can do well using just one method of learning, they would have a much deeper understanding of the material they learn if they use multiple learning styles.

While in some scenarios, one of the specific learning styles (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) may work, it is the combination of multiple learning styles that is most effective. So, if you ever find yourself stuck on a problem, try approaching it another way.

A young BIPOC student standing in front of an orange background with a confused look on her face and three question marks above her head.
Child girl thinking and having questions over yellow background

References

  1. “Belief in Learning Styles Myths May be Detrimental,” American Psychological Association. May 30, 2019, Accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2019/05/learning-styles-myth.
  2. “Different Learning Styles-What Teachers Need to Know.” KU SOE. June 28, 2021, Accessed August 31, 2021, https://educationonline.ku.edu/community/learning-styles-what-teachers-need-to-know.
  3. Husmann, Polly R and V. D. O’Loughlin. “Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students’ Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported VARK Learning Styles.” Anatomical Sciences Education 12 (2019): n. pag. Accessed August 31, 2021, https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Another-Nail-in-the-Coffin-for-Learning-Styles-and-Husmann-O%27Loughlin/e7c3376bf1eee46c4049b86e3ca1a7818ad2e51e.
  4. “Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Multimodal Learning,” University of Arkansas, Fort Smith, 2017, Accessed August 31, https://academics.uafs.edu/academic-success/visual-learning-strategies.

 

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