Teaching Profession

Teachers Still Believe in ‘Learning Styles’ and Other Myths About Cognition

By Madeline Will — September 05, 2019 3 min read
Image shows a silhouette of a person learning, and the components to make that work is represented by gears.
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Almost all teachers believe persistent myths about learning, a new survey finds.

More than three-fourths of teachers think that people are either right-brained (creative) or left-brained (analytical), and that those designations affect how they learn. And nearly all teachers endorsed the idea of “learning styles"—meaning that students learn more when their teachers tailor instruction to their individual styles, such as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic.

But research doesn’t back up these ideas, said Ulrich Boser, a researcher who leads the firm The Learning Agency and conducted the survey.

Prior research has found that of the thousands of articles published on learning styles, most didn’t test the concept in an experimental setting. Just last year, a new study found that students’ self-assessments of their learning styles didn’t correlate to their teachers’ perceptions, which researchers said indicated that the concept is “hit or miss.” And researchers have found that both hemispheres of the brain are involved in almost all cognitive tasks.

“It’s really not the fault of teachers—we have a system that does not give them enough support in terms of what the research says,” said Boser, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

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The survey was conducted online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which pays participants to complete polls. The results are based on the responses of 203 educators. A large majority of respondents were classroom teachers from across grade levels, while a few dozen were support staff and a handful were administrators.

The survey asked the educators 11 questions related to the science of learning. Respondents answered fewer than half correctly on average.

For example, research says that retrieval practice—actively trying to remember information—is the way to build long-term knowledge. But just 31 percent of respondents said retrieval practice is more effective for learning than re-reading. However, when given a specific classroom scenario, 59 percent of educators correctly endorsed retrieval practice.

And research establishes that “interleaved” practice—or mixing up different kinds of problems or materials—is a more effective way of learning than “blocked” practice, in which learners solve blocks of questions of the same problem type. But when the survey presented a specific classroom scenario with these two concepts, only 20 percent of respondents said interleaved practice is more effective for long-term learning than block learning. When the survey asked respondents about interleaving more generally, 35 percent said it was the more effective strategy.

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There were some bright spots in educators’ knowledge. For example, about 60 percent of educators correctly responded that three research-supported learning strategies—elaboration, spacing, and metacognition—would be more effective than a strategy shown to be ineffective, regardless of how the question was asked.

Most educators correctly chose elaboration—linking new information to other information—instead of repetition; spacing out practice instead of cramming to promote long-term retention; and the metacognitive strategy of self-explanation (thinking out loud) instead of simply memorizing steps.

The survey also asked respondents to list their top three places to learn about new research and evidence in education. Two-thirds of educators listed conferences, 59 percent said professional development, and 53 percent point to their peers.

Boser said schools should provide accurate information on the science of learning through those channels, in an effort to combat these myths. But it should start in teacher preparation, he said.

“Many schools of education don’t embrace the cognitive sciences,” Boser said.

Yet they have a responsibility to prepare teachers to stay abreast of the current research in the cognitive sciences: “It would be weird if large swathes of American doctors believed in bloodletting,” he said.

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