Professional Development

‘Learning Styles’ Aren’t a Reliable Way to Categorize Students, Study Says

By Sarah Schwartz — December 03, 2018 2 min read
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For years, psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the idea of “learning styles”—the theory that students can process information best when teachers tailor instruction to students’ strengths. These frameworks often rely on grouping students into categories, like auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners, or concrete versus abstract learners.

Now, a new study in Frontiers in Education offers further evidence that these designations may be unreliable: When it comes to an individual student’s preferred learning style, teachers and students don’t agree on how students learn best.

Researchers at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece and the University of Dundee in Scotland asked about 200 primary school students in Athens to identify themselves as either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Then, they asked teachers to classify the same students with the paradigm.

They found that the teachers’ and students’ answers didn’t match up: Students’ self-assessments of their learning styles didn’t correlate to their teachers’ perceptions.

“The fact that we didn’t find an agreement shows that assigning learning styles to students is more or less a hit or miss process,” Marietta Papadatou-Pastou, a lecturer in neuropsychology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and the lead author of the study, said in an interview. The mismatch highlights this framework’s unreliability, she said.

While all of the teachers surveyed said that they believed tailoring instruction to students’ learning styles would lead to student achievement, the study also suggests that how teachers define the term may vary. When asked in an open-ended question about the effect of learning styles, less than a quarter of the teachers mentioned the visual/auditory/kinesthetic structure.

At this point, many researchers consider learning styles to be a myth. Prior research has shown little evidence that learning-style theory holds up. A 2009 meta-analysis of thousands of articles published on the subject found that most didn’t test the concept in an experimental setting. Of those that did, several offered results that contradicted the theory.

But the idea’s popularity in education circles persists—in part, said Papadatou-Pastou, because there are, of course, real differences among learners. “The intuitive appeal of learning styles rests on this reality,” she said.

See also: Why ‘Learning Styles’ and Other Education Neuromyths Won’t Go Away

Everything from a student’s metacognitive skills to the language spoken at home to their motivation on a given day can influence how teachers need to approach instruction, Papadatou-Pastou said.

“Indeed, teachers should recognize such differences and accommodate them in their teaching,” she said. “But it’s different to providing visual, auditory, or kinesthetic material to different students.”

And Papadatou-Pastou said that learning styles aren’t only ineffectual—they can also have real consequences for students. Categorizing students by their perceived or self-reported strengths could discourage them from seeking new challenges, she said.

“We shouldn’t only work on the students’ strengths, but also try to work on their limitations. Because outside in the real world, they’re going to be facing all kinds of stimuli.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.