New review shows that learning styles aren’t dead yet… (but says also something important about the research)

Learning styles, don’t get me started… It’s an education myth I’m a bit tired of, and that’s a euphemism. Often when giving talks about urban myths about learning and education I tend to think that everybody already knows that e.g. learning styles have been debunked. Most of the time I have to discover that this isn’t the case and this new review study seems to confirm it – but with an important warning: many studies that check if teachers believe in learning styles or not are not really of the highest quality. So maybe the situation isn’t so dire at all.

From the press release:

A new review by Swansea University reveals there is widespread belief, around the world, in a teaching method that is not only ineffective but may actually be harmful to learners.

For decades educators have been advised to match their teaching to the supposed ‘learning styles’ of students. There are more than 70 different classification systems, but the most well-known (VARK) sees individuals being categorised as visual, auditory, read-write or kinesthetic learners.

However, a new paper by Professor Phil Newton, of Swansea University Medical School, highlights that this ineffective approach is still believed by teachers and calls for a more evidence-based approach to teacher-training.

He explained that various reviews, carried out since the mid-2000s, have concluded there is no evidence to support the idea that matching instructional methods to the supposed learning style of a student does improve learning.

Professor Newton said: “This apparent widespread belief in an ineffective teaching method that is also potentially harmful has caused concern among the education community.”

His review, carried out with Swansea University student Atharva Salvi, found a substantial majority of educators, almost 90 per cent, from samples all over the world in all types of education, reported that they believe in the efficacy of learning styles

But the study points out that a learner could be a risk of being pigeonholed and consequently lose their motivation as a result.

He said: “For example, a student categorized as an auditory learner may end up thinking there is no point in pursuing studies in visual subjects such as art, or written subjects like journalism and then be demotivated during those classes..”

An additional concern is the creation of unwarranted and unrealistic expectations among educators.

Professor Newton said: “If students do not achieve the academic grades they expect, or do not enjoy their learning; if students are not taught in a way that matches their supposed learning style, then they may attribute these negative experiences to a lack of matching and be further demotivated for future study.”

He added: “Spending time trying to match a student to a learning style could be a waste of valuable time and resources.”

The paper points out that there are many other teaching methods which demonstrably promote learning and are simple and easy to learn, such as use of practice tests, or the spacing of instruction, and it would be better to focus on promoting them instead.

In the paper, published in journal Frontiers in Education the researchers detail how they conducted a review of relevant studies to see if the data does suggest there is confusion.

They found 89.1 per cent of 15,045 educators believed that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.

He said: “Perhaps the most concerning finding is that there is no evidence that this belief is decreasing.”

Professor Newton suggests history is repeating itself: “If educators are themselves screened using learning styles instruments as students then it seems reasonable that they would then enter teacher-training with a view that the use of learning styles is a good thing, and so the cycle of belief would be self-perpetuating.”

The study concludes that belief in matching instruction to learning styles is remains high.

He said: “There is no sign that this is declining, despite many years of work, in the academic literature and popular press, highlighting this lack of evidence.

However, he also cautioned against over-reaction to the data, much of which was derived from studies where it may not be clear that educators were asked about specific learning styles instruments, rather than individual preferences for learning or other interpretations of the theory.

“To understand this fully, future work should focus on the objective behaviour of educators. How many of us actually match instruction to the individual learning styles of students, and what are the consequences when we do? Should we instead focus on promoting effective approaches rather than debunking myths?”

Abstract of the pragmatic systematic review:

A commonly cited use of Learning Styles theory is to use information from self-report questionnaires to assign learners into one or more of a handful of supposed styles (e.g., Visual, Auditory, Converger) and then design teaching materials that match the supposed styles of individual students. A number of reviews, going back to 2004, have concluded that there is currently no empirical evidence that this “matching instruction” improves learning, and it could potentially cause harm. Despite this lack of evidence, survey research and media coverage suggest that belief in this use of Learning Styles theory is high amongst educators. However, it is not clear whether this is a global pattern, or whether belief in Learning Styles is declining as a result of the publicity surrounding the lack of evidence to support it. It is also not clear whether this belief translates into action. Here we undertake a systematic review of research into belief in, and use of, Learning Styles amongst educators. We identified 37 studies representing 15,405 educators from 18 countries around the world, spanning 2009 to early 2020. Self-reported belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles was high, with a weighted percentage of 89.1%, ranging from 58 to 97.6%. There was no evidence that this belief has declined in recent years, for example 95.4% of trainee (pre-service) teachers agreed that matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective. Self-reported use, or planned use, of matching instruction to Learning Styles was similarly high. There was evidence of effectiveness for educational interventions aimed at helping educators understand the lack of evidence for matching in learning styles, with self-reported belief dropping by an average of 37% following such interventions. From a pragmatic perspective, the concerning implications of these results are moderated by a number of methodological aspects of the reported studies. Most used convenience sampling with small samples and did not report critical measures of study quality. It was unclear whether participants fully understood that they were specifically being asked about the matching of instruction to Learning Styles, or whether the questions asked could be interpreted as referring to a broader interpretation of the theory. These findings suggest that the concern expressed about belief in Learning Styles may not be fully supported by current evidence, and highlight the need to undertake further research on the objective use of matching instruction to specific Learning Styles

6 thoughts on “New review shows that learning styles aren’t dead yet… (but says also something important about the research)

  1. Sorry Pedro, but the caveat is bullshit
    “However, he also cautioned against over-reaction to the data, much of which was derived from studies where it may not be clear that educators were asked about specific learning styles instruments, rather than individual preferences for learning or other interpretations of the theory.”
    You can’t measure something that doesn’t exist.

      1. What people might prefer at any stage of their life is not necessarily good for them and their preference(s) might be constrained by their experience to that point. In any words that might not be aware of alternative approaches. However the belief/use of learning styles promotes entity thinking (Dweck) and barriers to further experience and learning – I’ve seen this enacted too many times. See https://www.google.com/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/students-are-not-hard-wired-to-learn-in-different-ways-we-need-to-stop-using-unproven-harmful-methods-63715

  2. In psychological measurement, you can create the thing you’re measuring simply by measuring it. It’s a nice exercise to create your own learning style inventory: just invent a theory and create a few questions (e.g., my theory could be that your shoe size is related to your learning style). Doesn’t mean it’s a valid measurement, though.

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