What’s the evidence for learning styles?
Earnsy Liu, TechCommNZ member and GDID student, looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession. If you have a question for Earnsy to tackle, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.In this post, Earnsy investigates whether technical communicators need to cater for different learning styles.
Do you agree with the statement below?
On average, the 313 members of public surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, rating it 6.35 out of 7 (Willingham et al., 2015). Over 90% of teachers in the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and China also felt individuals learn better when information is presented in their preferred learning style (Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones, & Jolles, 2012; Howard-Jones, cited in Willingham et al., 2015). And several educational institutions in New Zealand point students to questionnaires on learning styles.
What are learning styles? What do the experts think? Is there evidence for different styles of learning? Why do learning styles appeal? Is there any harm in catering to learning styles? Finally, what should we do as technical communicators to help our audience learn more effectively?
What are learning styles?
Definitions vary, but learning styles usually seem to be considered ‘preferred means of gathering, processing, and evaluating information’ (Goodwin & Hein, 2017, p. 79). They are not to be confused with ability or learning difficulties such as dyslexia (Goodwin & Hein, 2017; Willingham et al., 2015).
There are countless learning-style models based on physical senses, personality types, environmental factors, or learning cycles. The model may, for example, refer to visual or aural learning styles, or concrete or abstract learning styles.
The popular VAK and VARK learning-style models (visual, aural, kinaesthetic, or visual, aural, read/write, kinaesthetic) are based on the sensory ‘modalities’ or senses used for learning (‘The VARK Modalities’, n.d.).
|Modality||Examples of preferred ways of learning|
|Visual||Graphs, charts, flow diagrams, symbols|
|Aural||Lectures, group discussion, radio, talking things through|
|Read/write||PowerPoint, lists, words|
|Kinaesthetic||Demonstrations, simulations, case studies, practice|
Good technical communicators should be familiar with such models so they can tailor communication to the audience, right?
No, actually not.
What do the experts think?
Twenty neuroscientists, psychologists, and other experts in the UK, US, Canada, and Germany have signed a letter flagging ‘a number of problems with the learning styles approach’ (Hood et al., 2017), including:
- the lack of a coherent framework of preferred learning styles
- the danger that individuals think their learning styles are fixed, and so may not be motivated to try or adapt
- the lack of evidence that ‘matching’ (or ‘meshing’) material to learning style leads to more effective learning.
What’s the evidence for learning styles?
Four researchers spent 18 months reviewing 13 out of 71 learning-style models but found little supporting evidence. Indeed, they concluded that ‘the research field of learning styles is theoretically incoherent and conceptually confused’ (Coffield, 2006, p. 23).
Identifying preferred modalities
We could start by discussing how to identify preferred modalities – except meta-analysis of 39 studies showed they are hard to identify (Kavale & Forness, cited in Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004). Indeed, ‘learning styles are more likely to be influenced by students’ understanding of the demands of a particular task than by modality preference’ (Westman, Alliston, & Thierault, cited in Coffield et al., 2004, p. 24).
Research has relied on self-report questionnaires, which can be inaccurate and often have not been validated (various authors, cited in Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006).
Here are two examples of how hard it is to identify preferred modalities. In one study, visuals helped everyone perform a memory task, regardless of their preference for imagery, but especially helped those with a strong verbal preference (Constantinidou & Baker, cited in Coffield et al., 2004).
In a separate experiment, psychologists wanted to know if university students learnt and remembered material better when it was presented in their preferred modality (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Preferred modalities were identified by:
- asking the students if they were visual, verbal, or kinaesthetic learners
- using a questionnaire.
Different types of memory were tested:
- visual memory: recreating an abstract line drawing from memory
- auditory memory: recalling a short story that had been read to them
- kinaesthetic memory: carrying out a blindfolded exercise with shapes and a board, and subsequently drawing the shapes and board.
Self-declared learning styles matched the styles identified using the questionnaire for only 29 of the 65 participants (45%; see top graph in figure 1).
Neither self-declared styles nor questionnaire styles were related to memory test performance (compare the two graphs in figure 1).
Many participants said the shapes aloud in the kinaesthetic test, suggesting that they were using both language (aural) and touch (kinaesthetic) for the task.
The findings both raised ‘serious doubts about learning style specificity’ and suggested that individuals combined different strategies when learning (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006, p. 241).
To find out how participants were answering the questionnaire, the researchers had a further 10 participants answer it and subsequently explain their responses to each question. This revealed:
- participants based their answers mainly on beliefs about their own abilities, preferences, and general memories, seldom citing specific examples (figure 2)
- answers were influenced by interest in the topic and how it was presented (figure 2)
- participants focused on remembering the information (encoding) rather than recalling it (retrieval).
The researchers concluded that perceived learning styles ‘may indicate preferences and motivations rather than inherent efficiency at taking in and recalling information through specific sensory modalities’ (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006, p. 245).
Interestingly, one questionnaire – VARK – was not intended to identify learning modalities: ‘The questionnaire does not attempt to be diagnostic’ (Fleming, 1995, p. 3). Because it was intended as ‘a quick and easy catalyst for discussion’, the developers felt it was ‘unnecessary and inappropriate’ to check its validity and reliability (Fleming & Mills, 1992, p.3).
Assessing research methodology
But surely it makes sense to match learning styles to teaching styles. We learn differently after all.
Several psychologists listed four criteria that experiments would have to meet to demonstrate matching (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008; Rohrer & Pashler, 2012):
- Participants must be given a learning style test. Based on the results, they must be divided into groups (e.g. visual and auditory groups).
- Participants within each group must be randomly assigned to a learning method (e.g. visual or auditory method).
- Everyone must sit the same test after learning.
- Test results must show that different methods work for the different groups (e.g. visual learners do better with visual instruction, and verbal learners do better with verbal instruction).
Only about 20 studies met the criteria and most of them had ‘compellingly negative’ results (Rohrer & Pashler, 2012, p. 635). Three studies had positive results but these were ‘not very convincing’ (Rohrer & Pashler, 2012, p. 635) as they had gaps in their reporting.
An earlier review of research likewise found inconclusive evidence for matching teaching and learning styles: nine studies favoured matching, while another nine favoured mismatching (Smith, Sekar, & Townsend, cited in Coffield et al., 2004)!
Since using questionnaires to identify learning styles is tricky, can’t we use another method? Some studies have used technology such as eye-tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI; Bendall, 2016). However, at least one such study has been criticised for not demonstrating that different methods work better for different groups (Willingham, 2009).
Why do they appeal?
If there’s so little evidence for learning styles, why do we believe the theories?
Perhaps we’ve misunderstood:
- we have misinterpreted the fact that ‘visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain’. Yes they are, but the parts ‘are highly interconnected’ and share information between sensory modalities extensively (Gilmore et al., cited in Dekker et al., 2012, p. 2).
- we rely on popular belief. Confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret information in a way that is consistent with expectations, then ‘validates’ the belief (Willingham et al., 2015).
- we confuse learning style and learning ability (Willingham et al., 2015).
- information in the media is ‘over-simplified or over-interpreted’ (Dekker et al., 2012, p. 2).
Or perhaps we like to feel in control:
- learning styles satisfy a desire to know what 'type' of person we are (Pashler et al., 2008).
- we want to be seen and treated as unique individuals (Pashler et al., 2008).
- the approach allows teachers to feel they are addressing students’ needs, and allows students to feel their individual needs are being addressed (Hawk & Shah, 2007).
- the ‘simple solution to the complex problems’ of student performance and motivation, etc. appeals (Coffield et al., 2004, p. 125).
- we feel everyone can learn effectively with the right instruction (Pashler et al., 2008).
- we can blame the education system if a child doesn't succeed (Pashler et al., 2008).
What’s the harm?
Even if learning styles are a myth, is there any harm believing them? Experts think so. Teachers may implement the wrong ideas, wasting time, money, and effort (Dekker et al., 2012).
Even if there were evidence for learning styles, the benefits ‘would need to be large and robust’ for educational interventions to be cost effective (Pashler et al., 2008, p. 116). After all, students have to be assessed and grouped by learning style. Teachers would have to provide customised learning material. Additional training and more teachers may be needed (Pashler et al., 2008). And matching teaching and learning styles is demanding on teachers (Coffield et al., 2004).
And even if learning styles were true, they would account for only a small part of learning motivation (Bloomer and Hodkinson, cited in Coffield et al., 2004).
Instead of identifying students’ learning styles, teachers could teach students how to learn in different ways (Coffield, 2006).
What should we do?
The lack of evidence for learning styles doesn’t mean we should present material in one way only. On the contrary, ‘the optimal instructional method is likely to vary across disciplines... Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another’ (Pashler et al., 2008, p. 116).
So present material in the way that’s most suitable for your audience and their tasks. By all means, use a variety of ways – just don’t do it because of learning style theories (Willingham, 2008b).
If you’d like more information, or prefer to have it presented differently:
- read the experts’ letter: No evidence to back idea of learning styles (Hood et al., 2017; 2-min read).
- read this Guardian article: The concept of different “learning styles” is one of the greatest neuroscience myths (Woodhill, 2017; 3 min).
- watch two videos: Learning Styles Don't Exist (Willingham, 2008a; 7 min) and Clarification re: Learning Styles Don't Exist (Willingham, 2008b; 1½ min).
A big thank you to Dr Samantha Lentle-Keenan for her valuable comments on my first draft.
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Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K., (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Retrieved from https://nwresearch.wikispaces.com/file/view/Coffield%20learning%20styles.pdf/246502619/Coffield%20learning%20styles.pdf
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The VARK Modalities (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2017, from VARK website http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/the-vark-modalities/
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Willingham, D. (2009, March 30). Re: The learning styles myth: An interview with Daniel Willingham [Online comment]. Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://www.thepsychfiles.com/2009/03/episode-90-the-learning-styles-myth-an-interview-with-daniel-willingham/
Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271. Retrieved May 27, 2015, from https://my.queens.edu/cafe/Best Practices Documents/Learning Styles Do Not Matter or Work.pdf
Woodhill, O. (2017, Mar 13). The concept of different “learning styles” is one of the greatest neuroscience myths. The Guardian. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education