Empirical Support for Learning Styles?

Learning Styles: A Critical Appraisal

Learning styles-based instruction is a method of teaching that matches instructional techniques to a student’s preferred style of learning.  The benefit of matching instructional techniques to learning styles is that students will learn more.  This claim is known as the matching hypothesis.  Despite the theoretical appeal of learning styles, the evidence for the matching hypothesis is minimal in the current research literature (Cuevas, 2015; Rohrer & Pashler, 2012).  Of the 31 studies published since 2009, only one—not without its methodological flaws—has supported the matching hypothesis.  With the lack of empirical support for learning styles-based instruction, downplaying the need to accommodate learning styles seems not only correct, but also necessary.  Educational resources are limited, and time and money need to be spent on interventions that have been shown by empirically-supported research to improve student learning (Newton, 2015).  In the following sections, I will examine learning styles and related theories, my own experience with learning and education, my preferred way to learn, and my success with various learning modalities.  I will show that learning styles are merely preferences that have little effect on actual learning.

Learning Styles and Related Theories

It is important to clearly define a number of different theories and concepts when discussing learning styles.  First, the definition of a learning style is not monolithic in the research literature.  There are an overwhelming number of learning styles to be considered, but many of them can be grouped into two types: (a) a preference for processing certain types information and (b) a preference for processing information in certain ways (Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015).  It is important to note that a learning style is something other than an ability.  Greater learning does not necessarily follow from greater ability nor does greater ability necessarily follow from greater learning.  Thus, learning styles are always preferences for how one learns and do not necessarily indicate a greater ability to learn in that fashion.

Second, there are two theories that are often linked to learning styles that should be distinguished: constructivism and multiple intelligences theory.  Constructivism is a learning theory that stems from the idea that reality is constructed by the individual learner.  Because each learner presumably constructs his or her reality differently, there are inevitable conflicts in the way that learners view reality.  Resolving these conflicts is a part of the active learning process and constructivist theorists often recommend group work or collaborative learning as a means of incorporating active learning into instructional design.  Therefore, while constructivism and learning styles are often grouped together, their theoretical bases are not the same.  From my own experience, group work and collaborative learning are more often employed in the classroom than instruction tailored to different specific learning styles.

During my teacher certification training, constructivism, learning styles, and multiple intelligences were all taught as if they were empirically-supported theories with clear consequences for instructional design.  I can see now that I was being fed assumptions about the learning process that did not necessarily have scientific validity.  Constructivism shouldn’t be judged based on the merits of other theories, however.  I am much more sympathetic to it as a theory than I am to learning styles, even though the research literature on constructivism is mixed at best (Matthews, 2003).

Whereas constructivism is a theory about knowledge construction, multiple intelligences theory is a theory of abilities.  Because learning styles are not the same as abilities, multiple intelligences theory has a different theoretical base.  And though the empirical literature is not particularly supportive of multiple intelligences theory (Cuevas, 2015), I am still more sympathetic to it as a theory than I am of learning styles.

My Experience with Learning and Education

I have been involved in education as a student or an instructor for three and a half decades.  I have seen many different ways of presenting material from the student perspective, but I don’t recall many of the particulars because the content of the lessons was what I was supposed to be paying attention to, not the framework for presenting them.  However, I do recall group work being predominant at certain times and in certain classes.  I don’t recall any instruction where my learning style determined the way I was instructed.  In my own teaching, I tend to favor lectures combined with presentations and Socratic questioning.  When I teach online, I prefer to do whatever will increase the amount of teaching and social presence in the course.

Did I ever learn material simply by the way it was delivered?  It’s hard to determine, but I am inclined to say that it would depend on the material.  Some subjects lend themselves to visual presentation (e.g., art history) while others lend themselves to auditory presentation (e.g., music appreciation) and kinaesthetic presentation (e.g., tennis), but most academic subjects lend themselves to a variety of presentation styles.  There may be some benefit in varying instruction, but only because students’ attention spans are shorter than their instructors, especially when it comes to the academic material being presented.  I would advise new teachers to focus their efforts on bringing enthusiasm and interest to their subjects rather than trying to match instruction to learning styles.  Vary instruction, but do so because that helps sustain enthusiasm and interest for the subject in your students.

My Preferred Way to Learn

My preferred way to learn is to read and reflect on what I’ve read.  I also enjoy listening to lectures (when the speaker is good at lecturing) and talking about ideas in group discussion (when the other group members have something to say).  That isn’t to say that I don’t learn when other learning modalities are employed, only that these are my preferred ways to learn.  Before reading about the lack of empirical support for learning styles, I might have concluded that I benefitted from my preferences because so much instruction, especially in higher education, is based on reading, lecture, and discussion.  However, I am now inclined to think that my preferences had nothing to do with my achievements in education.  Anyone can learn from a method of instruction that does not match their preferred style of learning.  What has to be present, from the beginning, is a desire to learn.

Success with Various Learning Modalities

Could I have been even more successful if the content of my courses had been presented differently?  With regard to my core philosophy and literature courses, I don’t see how.  Both disciplines are essentially text-based.  How can one present text-based material in a variety of different learning styles?  One could do so somewhat superficially, but the essence of philosophy and literature can only be found in the written word.  There’s simply no way around it.  Supplement philosophy and literature with biography, science, and history, but don’t replace them with something that they aren’t.

Conclusion

Learning styles theories and the matching hypothesis have very little support in the empirical literature and should not be taught to prospective teachers at any level of education until they have been verified by a significant body of research.  While learning styles theories are often conflated with constructivism and multiple intelligences theory, care must be taken to disentangle them from one another so that they can be tested for validity on their own merits.  My own experience might appear to support the notion of matching instruction to learning style, but upon further examination it appears that I have always been a high achiever despite differences in the instructional methods that have been used throughout my educational career.  While this personal evidence does nothing to refute learning styles theories and the matching hypothesis, I am somewhat relieved to find out that my own preferences for reading, lecture, and discussion may be good enough to effectively teach the material of philosophy.  Having to consider each student’s individual learning style seems like an impossible dream in the context of classroom with 30 students who, more often than not, have never even read philosophy before.  Fortunately, it seems as if the impossible dream is not a necessary goal.

References

Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory & Research in Education, 13(3), 308. doi: 10.1177/1477878515606621

Matthews, W. J. (2003). Constructivism in the classroom: Epistemology, history, and empirical evidence. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30(3), 51-64. Retrieved from http://www.teqjournal.org

Newton, P. M. (2015). The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908

Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning styles: Where’s the evidence? Medical Education, 46(7), 634-635. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271. doi: 10.1177/0098628315589505

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