You’ve heard of learning styles, right? People get categorized as having particular learning styles, such as visual, auditory, tactile, etc. Perhaps you’ve decided what your learning style is or have encouraged others to determine theirs. The number of proposed learning styles varies. I’ve seen lists of three, four, seven, and eight. Regardless of how many there are proposed to be, the message is always the same: everyone has dominant learning styles that teaching styles must match for learning to be successful. The theory of learning styles has been prevalent in education for decades and continues to persist in classrooms, teacher-training courses, and the minds of students. Yet the theory of learning styles lacks evidence, is based on perception, and might hinder academic success.
Lack of Evidence
Many researchers consider the theory of learning styles to be “one of the biggest myths in education.” Studies don’t deny that people have learning preferences, but there isn’t evidence that catering to those individual preferences results in better learning. Some refer to learning styles as a neuromyth because the theory came about through a misinterpretation of research. However, the propagation of learning styles has resulted in its entrenchment in the minds of many teachers and students to the point that their perceptions and feelings have become the standard by which teaching and learning are measured. But perception and reality don’t always match up. Perception is “a belief or opinion . . . based on how things seem” and reality is “the state of things as they are, rather than as they are imagined to be.” Those two distinctions are crucial to research and discussions about learning styles.
Perception and Reality
In a 2023 Student Voice survey, a majority of the college students polled reported that an instructor’s teaching style was the number one barrier that hindered their academic success. Students reported being “negatively impacted by teaching styles that don’t match how they learn,” but that claim was based only on their “perceived barriers” to learning. The survey didn’t include any data about the teaching styles the students experienced or their actual level of academic success.
In a previous study conducted in 2019, two groups of students were taught the same material, but in two different ways. One group was taught through lectures and the other through active learning. At the end of the course, students self-reported their perception of learning and then were tested on their actual learning. The data revealed that students in the lecture section reported feeling like they learned more than they did, and students in the active-learning section reported feeling like they learned less than they did.
Students in that study were convinced, based on their perceptions, that they learned less if they weren’t taught according to their preferred style. However, their perception was not reality.
Detrimental or Helpful
When students perceive that they learn best through a certain teaching style, they often become biased against styles they don’t prefer. The 2019 study of the two groups of students cited that teachers who tried active-learning methods often reverted back to lectures due to students’ complaints. When students don’t like a particular teaching style, they tend to resist it because they feel like they aren’t learning, even though that might not be the reality.
Based on another study in 2019, the American Psychological Association identified two ways that adherence to the theory of learning styles can undermine education: 1) educators tailor lessons to be taught to different students in different ways, “even though all students would benefit from learning through various ways” and 2) students tend to study in a manner that matches their perceived learning style, “even though it won’t help them succeed.”
But it isn’t just the students whose perceptions often don’t match reality. Teacher and author Carl Hendrick observed that “some students can appear on the surface to be learning without actually learning, other students can paradoxically acquire long-lasting learning gains while seemingly appearing not to.” Just as it’s a mistake to rely on students’ perceptions or feelings of learning to determine if they’ve learned or not, it’s detrimental for teachers to assume students are learning, or not, based on appearances.
Teachers who espouse the theory of learning styles have likely done so with good intentions to help students. However, studies have demonstrated that a major problem with the theory of learning styles is that it’s based on perceptions and feelings rather than valid research and data. So what should teachers do
1. Read the research on learning styles
2. Resist making judgments about learning based on perceptions, feelings, or appearances.
3. Remember that the goal of teaching is for students to learn, not to appear or feel like they are learning.