Learning Styles

Does applying teaching and learning styles really improve learning?

What type of learner are you? You probably grew up thinking you are a verbal learner or a visual learner, and the chances are that you have pegged yourself or your children as either one or the other and use study techniques that suit your style. This is a common approach in education, for more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence. There has been a variety of developments on types of learning styles out there and the main known ones are visual, auditory, physical and social learning.

The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles or do people really learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

Unfortunately, the answer is ‘no’, according to an extensive range of educational research in the past 10 years. A major report published in Psychological Science, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning (Pashler et al.) reviewed the existing literature on learning styles and found that although numerous studies have claimed to show the existence of different kinds of learners, those studies have not used any type of validated research designs that would make their findings credible.

Over 60 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have been created with students’ best interests in mind and aimed to create more suitable environments for learning, but research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the educational psychologists argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources. A recent study tested the effect of teaching to learning styles and found no evidence of improvement, and concluded its much more useful to tailor learning strategies to the material, if anything, rather than to the students claimed learning style.

Despite this lack of convincing evidence, the notion of learning styles remains popular. A 2017 survey found that 53% of teachers in higher education endorsed the concept of learning styles, but this support has been waning as more and more negative evidence comes in.

In my opinion, labeling a student as a visual learner and having to feed material around that doesn’t improve learning. Students have preferences, like a favorite food, but eating your favorite food (e.g. pizza) every day will not provide full nourishment, students need to encounter all types of stimulation which improve neural connections in the brain, creating more stimulation and improving memory and learning, the preferred style (e.g visual) can be used to create interest rather than learning. As teachers and parents, we should aim to expose children to learning in a variety of contexts, exposing them to learn using all ‘styles’ and applying student’s interests to engage in learning.

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