The claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred learning style is simply not supported by science.
Letter in The Guardian
The standard argument against learning styles is simple: experimental research seems to have definitively shown that matching instruction to students’ learning styles does not improve learning.
In my experience, this argument is also unconvincing for many teachers. I’d like to try on a different perspective.
Anecdotally, the most common learning style that people identify is being a visual learner. I’ve also met many people who identify “learning by doing” as their preferred style. Certainly other styles exist, but these are the two I have seen the most, drawn from the VAK (visual/auditory/kinesthetic) framework that is popular. These are people who are likely to speak up in learning situations by saying things like, “I’m a visual learner, I need to see a visual to understand this”, or “I really need a chance to do this to get it”.
One way to understand these requests is to acknowledge that effective visuals and active “learning by doing” strategies are underutilized, and all learners benefit from learning in a variety of ways rather than through a single modality. From this perspective, identifying with a certain learning style functions to influence instruction to improve learning. The learning style could be understood as a privilege — through prior experience, individuals have learned to advocate for better instruction through the lens of learning styles. Those who don’t identify with a certain learning style do not have these tools to advocate for themselves. Inevitably, this creates inequities between outspoken learners whose position allows them to advocate for more varied instruction to meet all learners’ needs, and those who, for whatever reason, do not.
While learning styles can create inequities that advantage those who advocate for themselves, they can also cement existing disparities by creating an avenue for learners to say, “well that’s not how I learn”. Labeling a student, or allowing a student to label themselves, as a certain type of learner is not very different from allowing them to label themselves a “math person” or “not a math person”. Whether or not the underlying label is valid, it functions to limit what the learner believes themselves capable of and steers them toward learning situations where they don’t need to push outside of their comfort zone or try new things.
Do These Land?
The research evidence convinces me, but it doesn’t land for many other teachers. Is this perspective a useful one to change minds on the value of learning styles?