Individual Learning Styles: An Education Urban Legend?

June 28, 2017 Christopher Ruel

You know what an urban legend is, right? These are stories typically promulgated by word of mouth from one generation to another. Popular ones include: Walt Disney is in cryogenic hibernation; someone has woken up in an ice bath after a night of drinking only to discover one of his/her kidneys has been removed, or driving three times backward around local monuments can summon the devil. None of these have any basis in fact, but they capture the public’s imagination. Education has its own version of urban legends, called neuromyths. Have you heard the one about individual learning styles? Well Virginia, it turns out learning style-centered educational methods have little empirical data supporting them, according to many prominent researchers.

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Learning Styles: True or False?

As educators, you are no doubt familiar with the idea of the auditory learner, the visual learner, the kinesthetic learner, etc. Paul A. Kirschner and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer, in their 2013 paper on the subject of educational urban legends, cite a review in which 71 different learning styles were identified.  “If we start from the conservative assumption that each learning style is dichotomous, there would already be 271 combinations of learning styles. This means that there are many more combinations of styles than people living on Earth.” This staggering number is just one of the issues neuroscientists, psychologists, and education experts have labeled as problematic when it comes to assigning learning styles to students. There are two other challenges related to individual learning-style methodologies and their effectiveness: 1) “pigeonholing” and; 2) student self-reporting. In a letter to The Guardian UK newspaper this past March, 30 highly-esteemed academics stated their concerns over the predominance of the individual learning style neuromyth. The empirical evidence, the researchers wrote, had no effect on student success rates. Myth busted? Perhaps.

What Educators Think About the Urban Legend

We shared the Guardian UK’s article on a Wiley educator discussion board and asked them what they thought. Did they agree or disagree based on their experiences in the classroom? The conversation was interesting, to say the least. The majority of educators had already moved past the “pigeonholing.” One pointed to the Kirschner/ van Merriënboer research to back up The Guardian UK’s article. Though not all of the educators on the discussion thread agreed with the findings, the majority did and explained how they approach the individual learning style methodology.

Below are excerpts from the online conversation.

  • “I think that variety is the spice in learning. When considering different learning outcomes, the students need options to help scaffold their learning through online videos, assessments, readings, complex activities, manipulation of material, oral presentations, writing etc. [Students] can figure out which one, or use all of them, to expose themselves to different topics…the students are exposed to different approaches to learning, which helps them become better rounded… I personally believe that students learn in all modalities.”
  • “Students need to develop the necessary skills to learn using whatever means and style is presented to them, especially as they grow older. They need to develop life-long learning skills. Yes, having a preferred style is good and, hopefully, they will encounter opportunities to use and apply it in the future, but learning has to also take place in all types of circumstance and in all types of situations. In the workplace of their future, students must learn to adapt and change as conditions and situations change…”
  • “…Way too much emphasis has been placed on trying to meet the needs of individual students’ learning styles, especially in high school. We are seeing students more and more coming to the university level totally unprepared for college. It’s not that students don’t have specific abilities and distinct learning styles, but they have not been given any challenging direction in learning how to learn.”
  • “I think there can be a middle ground…people will likely have a preferred way of learning, [but] when they are in a career, they will need to use all learning styles to interact and grow in their professions…it is part of our responsibility to help them achieve that balance.”
  • “I have always advocated for trying as many learning styles as possible. Reading aloud, for instance, allows auditory, verbal, and visual input.  …Awareness of the learning styles may give somebody a new tool, but always emphasize the multiple styles…”
  • “I have had students who tell me they learn best by listening and when given accounting problems in class, [they] sit and do nothing, and don’t even write down the answers given to them. Then they inquire as to why they are not doing well.”
  • “To me, the key is to acknowledge these are preferred learning styles. If that is done, that gets rid of the concern that it will be used as an excuse for not learning because something didn’t match [their] learning style. …Long-term learning often involves cognitive dissonance. I believe we help our students most when we guide them to identify their preferred learning style and then encourage them to explore learning outside that preference. By helping them acknowledge they have [a] habit of learning and then helping them become comfortable with being uncomfortable…”

There were many comments akin to those listed above and they all came to similar conclusions. Yes, learning styles exist, but getting students out of their comfort zones is the best tactic for improving learning outcomes.

What Do You Think?

We had 52 individual posts to this discussion thread by educators from a wide range of institutions. What do you think? Join in the conversation by adding your thoughts on individual learning styles in the comments section below.

About the Author

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