Study: No Adequate Evidence to Support “Learning Styles”

by Robert Pondiscio
December 18th, 2009

The four most beautiful words in the English language are “I told you so.”   Dan Willingham is not the kind of guy to say such things out loud, but he could.  He’s taken some grief for saying there’s nothing in cognitive science to support the idea that kids have different ”learning styles.”   Nearly 50,000 people have watched his YouTube video on the subject.  Now via EdWeek, along comes a study in  Psychological Science in the Public Interest by a group cognitive scientists who argue “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.”  Let me repeat that:  there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Sorry. You missed it?  One more time?  My pleasure:  There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Wagering is now open on how long it will take before this unsupported idea loosens its grip on education.  The over/under is 2o years. I’ll take the over. 

In the absence of evidence for learning styles, the report says the “widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.”

Twenty years sounds about right.  I’m an optimist.

Update:  Become a fan of Learning Styles Debunked on Facebook.

25 Comments »

  1. Is there much of a difference between “learning styles” and “differentiated instruction”? My impression is that there is a lot to be learned from differentiated instruction, and that “learning styles” are seen to be an aspect of it (although as this shows, it should not be).

    -Nathan

    Comment by Nathan — December 18, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  2. Not the same thing, I would say. If you’re teaching fractions to two kids, one of whom knows his multiplication tables cold, another who is still drawing arrays, you can’t teach them the same way. But that’s about scaffolding. Learning styles theory would say the difference is that one is a tactile learner and needs math manipulatives, while another is a kinesthetic learner who needs to move around to learn the material.

    I had an AP once who sent around a memo insisting that all lessons had to be differentiated for learning styles. I responded in the only sensible way: I ignored it. As long as she saw math manipulatives out she was happy.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 18, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  3. Robert,

    Very interesting. I can’t say I totally agree with the findings but I’m glad I downplayed the learning styles storm when I taught.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 18, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  4. I agree that learning styles can’t be assessed, but not that they don’t exist. No two people learn the same. Everybody has a preference; strengths and weaknesses. Cognitive science does show us that individuals can suffer from verbal processing disorders or nonverbal learning disabilities. Are you going to tell me reading is the most efficient way for a dyslexic to learn?

    Those are extreme examples, but in an inclusion classroom having students who learn so differently is a very real possibility, and I think that makes the case for differentiated instruction.

    But assessing learning styles in typical students? Yeah, it’s foolish.

    Comment by Eric J. P. — December 18, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  5. Regardless, I can say that I freak out if I am talked to for very long, yet my wife can take in a lecture by the same person and absorb it just fine. I don’t need evidence to at least incorporate multiple modes of instruction to keep things varied. I don’t care that the ‘buzzword’ hasn’t been validated by this search for evidence, nor am I some big worshipper of learning styles. Not sure what the big excitement is about this?

    Comment by Keith Newhouse — December 18, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

  6. I think the article gives much more balance for the potential that learning styles could be exist but haven’t been empirically verified. Definitely work to be done, but you paint it as snake oil. I wouldn’t be surprised if under empirical investigation we would see some evidence of these differences relating to significant differences in learning outcomes.

    Comment by Dumi — December 18, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  7. No need to downplay learning styles. I see them all the time. Why dicker over whether they specifically exist and instead create multi-learning style learning situations? That is, make sure you (as a teacher) operate in lots of different modes. If you combine project-based learning with a little traditional classroom stuff, you might actually hit the different preferences or choices of your students (call it leanring style if necessary). And if students know up front that the teacher is going to try lots of different approaches, they might be ready to buy in to the classroom experience.

    Comment by Terry Smith — December 18, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  8. The idea behind learning styles–the idea that is unsupported–is that children have a particular mode of taking in information that works best for him or her. Child A is a visual learner, Child B is kinesthetic, Child C auditory, etc. Therefore in order to properly differentiate we must present new information in those styles or else we’re not serving those children well (this was what my AP, to whom I alluded earlier, apparently believed). This is hooey.

    Sure, good teachers tend to vary their modes of presentation, but because the material lends itself to it, not to differentiate based on learning style. And before you dismiss this as no big deal remember that Washington, DC and presumably other districts evaluate teachers based in part on how they “target multiple learning styles” in order to “ensure all students have the opportunity to meet lesson objectives.” So performance reviews hinge on junk science. It’s tantamount to a physician being held accountable for manipulating a patient’s four bodily humours. Continuing to insist on it in the absence of evidence is the kind of thing that makes education look less than rigorous as a discipline.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 18, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

  9. Do learning preferences of some sort exist? Sure, but they are likely to vary according to the nature of the thing to be learned. So, as Robert said, the material itself lends itself to varying modes of presentation.

    And there’s another point here. Aren’t students responsible–to some degree–for figuring out how to learn things? Isn’t that part of what homework is for? I always enjoyed figuring out the material and figuring out how to learn it. I never wanted that to be handed to me, and I never wanted others involved in it. It was my adventure and my own business.

    We have trivialized homework to the point where everything is supposed to be learned in class. That means a lot of hovering over the students and a lot of time wasted on “learning styles” and “strategies.” In the meantime, students get the message that everything is supposed to be handed to them.

    Let the students figure more out for themselves. If they find they learn best when hearing things out loud, let them read things out loud, on their own. If they find they learn best when writing things out, let them write them out, on their own. And if they find that this varies according to the assignment, then let them do what works best, on their own.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 19, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  10. Let’s keep in mind that one study is “evidence” and that multiple repeated studies are “proof.” Also, lack of studies isn’t proof that something doesn’t work. I’m not disagreeing with R. Pondiscio’s comments above, but I think his best comments are those in the late evening Dec 18th notes. Further the conclusions in this post don’t mean that educators should avoid using variety in instruction or talking with students about how they think they learn. Also, learning styles has been a great motivator to teachers to implement instruction beyond lecture and book work.

    Comment by Mike Muir — December 19, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  11. No need to downplay mal-aria. I see it all the time. Why dicker over whether “bad air” is really the cause of this worldwide scourge, and instead create multiple opportunities to escape it? If you combine mal-aria theory with a little bit of scientific engineering stuff, you might actually lower the death toll from this affliction. As a recent study by Doctors Howard and Fine at the National Teacher’s College of Science Education has demonstrated, we have had a solution for mal-aria for 2,000 years! The ancient Roman aristocracy knew that if they fled the mal-aria of the city each summer for their villas in the cool, Umbrian hills, they would not get the disease. This story has been common knowledge ever since. But the rub has been how to get the rest of the population up there in the thereputic breezes? Build a “Summertime” Rome? Buy everybody a ticket?

    Well, that is where the modern engineering stuff comes in. Using the scientific method, engineers have developed a small, cheap, easily mass-produced machine that can, as the Howard & Fine study demonstrates, “condition” aria such that the Umbrian Hills Villa atmosphere of the Last Century BC is exactly replicated. If we can summon the national will to pay for it, to put “aria conditioners” in every home, school and business in the country, we can obliterate Malaria!

    As an educator, I believe that my profession should lead this crusade. In all of our various associations, whose combined political power is unstoppable, we must not only embrace the wisdom of Howard and Fine, but declaim it from every mountainside, hilltop and molehill until the cash from Washington comes rolling forth like a mighty tide.

    Comment by Bill eccleston — December 19, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  12. Diana beat me to the punch! Great comments!

    Comment by tim-10-ber — December 19, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  13. Why do educators always refuse to believe science? (I should note that I am a teacher myself).

    Cognitive psychologists conduct numerous comprehensive process-outcome studies on learning styles over the last couple of decades that virtually prove learning styles theories are bunk, but tell that to a teacher and they’ll say “well, that’s an interesting study, but I disagree.”

    What is this disagreement based upon? Anecdotal evidence and nothing more?

    The reality is that the modality in which students should learn is the one that best fits the content (as Dr. Willingham has argued).

    Comment by Tony G. — December 19, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  14. Tony G: That is easy question to answer. What percent of K-12 teachers and administrators have STEM backgrounds? The vast majority of teachers spend their lives emphasizing and teaching stories, anecdotes and personal narratives. Why would this not carry over into how they approach best teaching practice?

    Comment by Matt — December 19, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  15. To Tony G & Matt:

    Couldn’t agree with you two more.

    The major problem as I see it is that various studies on best practices in education (or as in this case, ineffective practices)tend to be unknown at best or ignored at worst. Can you imagine how you would feel if your doctor refused to discontinue a medicine you were taking because he/she disagreed with the recall warnings? If educators want to be taken seriously as professionals, a good place to start would be for educators to collectively say: “This practice seems questionable, so we won’t do it because it may be harmful to improving educational outcomes.”

    Comment by e.g.e. — December 19, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  16. Diana is right as usual; but I’d go a step further and suggest that were arguing apples and oranges.

    There’s a difference between an individual (some of us don’t outgrow our childhood characteristics)’s capacity to intake information and process it into “usable knowledge” and the best way to PRESENT information.

    Story telling is a poor way to describe a unfamiliar animal or odd vehicle. Here visual is better for all but the blind, and that’s not what we’re discussing.

    Forty-five years ago we were treated to a demonstration of the latest in teaching aids … an overhead projector. The sales rep gave a card to one volunteer who was to “describe” a complex shape and the rest of us were to draw what we heard. The rep would than drop a transparency on the glass and “voila”. The wrinkle was that the teacher pulled a piece of chalk out of her smock and drew on the blackboard while the rep was shuffling transparencies.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 19, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  17. This may or may not be the actual study, but it is free. By the title, it sounds like it.
    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/pspi_9-3_article.pdf

    Comment by tm willemse — December 19, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  18. I think part of the problem is that the methods which actually USE all three styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic) are decidedly UNSEXY.

    For instance– back in the dark ages, teachers used to have kids master spelling words by…. copying each word ten times.

    Then the kids see the words, write the words, and say the words…. (or as I told my Latin students,copying puts the words into your eyes, ears, mouth and hands)

    Voila! Multiple learning styles….. but copying words is ROTE LEARNING…..BORING…. UNPROGRESSIVE….

    So instead we ask teachers to come up with unique activities that focus on one method or another–when most kids can learn best from methods that combine all the ‘styles.’

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — December 19, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  19. Also curious as to how these findings will influence special education teachers and students.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 19, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  20. A lot of the so-beloved creative activities are extremely inefficient, even if they happen to lead to learning. If something can be explicitly taught in X amount of time, it’s very bad practice to spend 5x or 10x the time by doing it in a more creative way. I think that almost all of the group work falls into that category, even assuming that the desired material will be learned. In my experience, it won’t be; group work at the k-12 level usually amounts to a pooling of ignorance.

    Comment by momof4 — December 19, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  21. To momof4,
    As a grandfather of twins+3, I can understand your interest in efficiency. But I would stand in the defense of group work on investigative experimentation (on occasion) just for the process of the students learning how to do it.

    Nobody advocates reinventing the wheel at every turn, but somewhere the kids need to experience how inventing takes place. There is a place for one-time-learning events.

    Having visited a cheese factory in Oregon with the family, I asked the 7-year-old twins if they knew where the Tillamook cheese in their sandwiches came from a year after the trip from Ohio. They answered “the store”. To my next question of where before that, they suggested a truck and then were stumped until I reminded them of the trip. They didn’t quit talking about “a million pieces of cheese moving in every direction” for the next ten minutes. You can’t learn that in a book.

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 20, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  22. There were two fascinating concepts in this study, one discussing the efficacy of embedded questions within text and also the influence of a student’s locus of control on performance. Also, Robert, you are not going to like this, but there is evidence that learning is enhanced by testing. See attached quote.

    “As we asserted earlier, it is undeniable that the instruction that is optimal for a given student will often need to be guided by the aptitude, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions that student brings to a learning task. However, assuming that people are enormously heterogeneous in their instructional needs may draw attention away from the body of basic and applied research on learning that provides a foundation of principles and practices that can upgrade everybody’s learning. For example, the finding that learners’ memory for information or procedures can be directly enhanced through testing (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) is not something that applies to only a small subset of learners but (as far as can be told) applies to all. Although performance of a student on a test will typically depend on that student’s existing knowledge, testing (when carried out appropriately, which sometimes requires providing feedback) appears to enhance learning at every level of prior knowledge.” pg 41

    Comment by TM Willemse — December 20, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  23. I’ve never been opposed to testing. Anyone who has ever studied for a test would agree that testing enhances learning. But I’m bothered when testing becomes the alpha and omega of kids’ education and results in significant narrowing of the curriculum–a perfect vicious circle.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 20, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  24. I have a Ph.D, in Educational Psychology and we looked at learning styles a lot in my courses.

    There is little evidence that more biologically-based learning styles, such as the Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic or the Right-Brain/Left-Brain theories, are of value.

    However, there are a couple of theories that are more about ways of thinking that have evidence of being helpful, and are relatively intuitive for K-16 teachers.

    For example see Dr. Robert Sternberg’s theory of triarchic intelligence that sugests learning is improved when students are guided to think analytically, practically, and creatively.

    Also Dr. David Kolb’s experiential learning theory suggests learning is organized around four questions: Why? What? How? and What if?

    Both of these theories suggest that a student may prefer a particular mode or style, but the best learning occurs when all students operate in all modes or styles – plus they are great ways for teachers to organize lessons.

    Cheers!

    Comment by Clay Austin — December 21, 2009 @ 10:39 am

  25. what is the name of the study by which you are referring?

    Comment by Anonymous — January 7, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

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