Updated: Feb 23
Definition, Misconceptions, and How to Properly Employ them for Educational Purposes
If you’re a teacher, student, or parent, you’ve most likely heard about learning styles and how they can allegedly help students learn more effectively. But did you know that despite the intuitive appeal, there is little to no empirical evidence that learning styles are real? So, why have they become so pervasive throughout educational circles? And do they hold any merit in the classroom whatsoever? Well, we’re here to investigate all this and more, starting by defining what people are referring to when they talk about learning styles, exploring the misconceptions and consequences of the learning style model, and discussing how to properly employ them for educational success.
Learning Styles Defined
Before we dive into why the learning style model is causing controversy within the academic community, let’s first start by identifying what is meant by the term ‘learning style.’ A learning style is meant to refer to an individual’s preferred way of absorbing, processing, comprehending, and retaining information. The most predominantly used learning style theory is Fleming and Mills’ VARK model, which stands for visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic. In essence, this model suggests that visual learners learn best by seeing, auditory learners learn best by hearing information, reading/writing learners learn best by reading information from printed words, and kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. Sounds pretty convincing, right? Education boards and teachers thought so too, and, as a result, learning styles have been integrated into classroom models for decades. But is there any evidence that they actually work to help students achieve greater academic outcomes?
Misconceptions and Consequences of the Learning Style Model
To answer the previous question we posed: no. Currently, there is no evidence that designing lessons that appeal to different learning styles accelerates student learning, yet teachers are consistently directed to keep these pseudoscientific style categories in mind in their classrooms. This mismatch between the empirical evidence and belief in learning styles, alongside the persistence of learning styles in the wider literature, has led to tension and controversy throughout academic circles.
It also can have a negative impact on the learning environment since some students may feel ‘pigeonholed’ into one learning style. For example, a ‘visual learner’ may be dissuaded from pursuing subjects which do not appear to match their diagnosed learning style (for example, learning music) and/or may become overconfident in their ability to master subjects perceived as matching their learning style. Another negative consequence is that teachers are wasting valuable time and resources preparing lessons to cater to the different learning styles when, in fact, there is no proof they even work. So, if there is no empirical evidence to substantiate the claim that learning styles help students learn more effectively, we should probably eliminate the model altogether, right?
How to Employ Learning Styles Properly
Well, unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Essentially, researchers are working to uncover how employing learning styles can help students achieve academic success, but it’s not as simple as assigning one learning style to a student and working from there. In fact, the answer comes in combining learning styles to use a variety of teaching methods to accommodate the diversity of students’ learning styles. In other words, everything is context-specific depending on the student, learning material, and environment, among other factors.
So then, how are educators supposed to navigate and address this issue of context specificity? Well, at Knowledge Bump, we, first of all, no longer lean on learning styles in our assessments. Instead, we have longer conversations about accessibility and what students find helpful for each type of topic and assessment they are given at school. This allows us to dive deeper and create a customized learning plan based on a more holistic picture of the student’s educational needs. Furthermore, during our sessions, we use an interdisciplinary approach to tutoring, utilizing a multitude of techniques and working with each student individually to see what works best for them.
This may be more difficult to achieve in the traditional classroom since teachers are often in charge of 20+ students at any time. However, they can begin to mirror some of the strategies we’ve integrated at Knowledge Bump – mainly using an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates several techniques to help reach students where they’re at. The main problem with the traditional learning style model (besides having no empirical evidence to support it – have we mentioned that already?) is that it does not acknowledge that a student may learn best visually in one subject and kinaesthetically in another. But, by purposefully using an interdisciplinary approach, teachers can begin to give students more space to explore their learning preferences in each subject and ultimately create better academic outcomes.
As you can see, the idea of the learning style model has caused widespread controversy throughout the educational community, with many proclaiming and others disclaiming its merit. And it makes sense why we would want learning styles to be true – it’s an intuitive theory that allows us to simply identify the type of learner a student is and run with it. But, unfortunately, properly employing learning styles is much more complicated than that and requires a holistic, interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges that all students could be all types of learners, depending on the context. Plus, current research is evolving to support such context-specific theories, with several studies indicating that more experience with topics and implementing multiple ways of learning will yield better results. So, ultimately, we would say that, yes, learning styles are a myth, but not one that is irrevocably incorrect and needs to be discarded, but rather one that needs to be updated, brought into 21st-century learning, and integrated among a multitude of other strategies and techniques.
To learn more about how Knowledge Bump uses an interdisciplinary approach coupled with conversations about accessibility to help students reach their academic goals or to inquire about working with us, contact our team at www.knowledgebump.ca.
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