Unless you’ve been under a rock, avoiding the most infamous jargon of education, you’ve heard the term ‘learning styles’. It has become quite the buzzword in the last decade or so and is almost said with a cringe today. In what can be described as a neuromyth, learning styles have taken a beating by recent research and should be laid to rest with other famous falsehoods of psychology and education. Shockingly enough, though, its proliferation still exists. You can still see its fading footprint on our system of education by searching different universities’ programs of education. While reading through a particular program’s list of distinctions and goals…there it is…tucked away in the third paragraph, lauding the differentiation of this institution’s education department. With the wealth of knowledge invalidating the effectiveness of learning styles, it is quite remarkable institutions still use them as a pillar of their program.
The Learning Styles Myth
What exactly are learning styles? Well, that’s not too easily defined and there are many different forms. Looking at research, one of the most popular forms is VAK; visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (1). Other researchers have compiled over seventy different classifications for learning styles (2). That we cannot agree on what they are begins to show the problem with learning styles. How do learning styles apply to and affect the classroom? Dr. Philip Newton states there are three steps:
1. Learners will show a preference for their style of learning.
2. Learners will display a difference in ability when not using their style.
3. Learners will have experience better educational outcomes when the instructional design matches their learning style. (3)
I remember attending professional development and explicitly being told to create lessons that reach all three learning styles (VAK). Even at a time of being introduced to the idea of learning styles, reaching three different styles of learner during the course of every lesson seemed, at best, strange to me.
As it turns out, most research shows a lack of evidence in support of learning styles. While there is a wealth of information, very few experiments provide the capability of studying the validity of learning styles. Those studies that were adequately replicable often found the results lacking in evidence to support learning styles (4). In fact, recently, a group of 30 prominent researchers, neuroscientists, and psychologists wrote a letter to The Guardian stating their concern over the popularity of learning styles. They discuss its ineffectiveness and potential harm in the classroom (5). Due to a lack of scientific evidence, it should be concluded that learners having a particular style of learning is a myth. The end.
A Viable Alternative: Learning Strategies
So, since learning styles are bunk, is there a viable alternative that reaches learners of all abilities across most curriculums? It certainly looks that way, and the term to know is learning strategies. These strategies, and there are many, are researched and proven to work across most ability levels and curriculum. A growing number of studies
Here’s an overly simplified overview of a few of the most promising learning strategies:
Retrieval Practice ,or practice testing, is a form of low-stakes or no-stakes quizzing that attempts to force retrieval of material from one’s memory. The quizzing can be in many forms and doesn’t even have to match the form of a summative evaluation (6). I have written more about how I incorporate retrieval practice in my classroom here and how I use retrieval practice to promote students’ metacognition here.
Distributed Practice, or spaced practice, refers to distributing practice of material over time. This spacing of practice aids in retention of material much better than cramming. The amount of spacing depends on the complexity of the task and can range from hours to months.
Interleaved Practice involves shifting the focus of one’s studies among differing topics. This is in contrast to studying and practicing all of one topic before moving on to a next topic of study (7). While this does make studying more difficult, studies have shown far greater retention of material on summative evaluations with this interleaving of material.
There are many other learning strategies (dual coding, elaboration, concrete examples, et cetera). The three presented above are among the most widely used and researched, and provide some of the most promising results. On the whole, I submit to the use of these learning strategies in my high school classroom for two reasons:
1. They are evidence-based. There is a wealth of research attesting their effectiveness.
2. They are easily applied to most types of classes for most levels of learners.
As a teacher, I am not necessarily looking for the next fad of education, but want strategies that improve my students’ understanding and retention of material. Learning strategies do just that.
As I stated earlier, the scope of this article only allows for a brief introduction to learning strategies. For more information, I would recommend The Learning Scientists. They do a remarkable job of explaining the research in terms that are quite understandable and applicable to the classroom student and teacher. Also, I recommend the book Make It Stick for a wonderful elaboration on learning strategies and, among other things, how they should affect study habits and learning.
What will you do to combat prevailing learning myths?
How might you use these proven learning strategies in your class?
1. Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Res. 50, 123–133. doi: 10.1080/00131880802082518
2. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post 16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
3. The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education. Psychol., 15 December 2015 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908
4. Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.
6. Dunlosky – Improving Student’s Learning with Effective Learning Techniques