Debunking the myth of personal learning styles


When educators read scholarly research on the brain, there is always the potential for misinterpretation.

In the field of Mind, Brain, and Education research-informed teaching, these errors are called "neuromyths," defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as "a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for the use of brain research in education and other contexts." There are some incredibly potent neuromyths in circulation, but none bigger than the myth about personal learning styles.

The learning styles myth goes something like this: "Students are either visual (sight), auditory (hearing) or kinesthetic (touch) learners, and teachers need to design their lessons based on the student's preferred learning style to improve student outcomes." But the research does not support this claim (i.e., in the words of psychologist and professor Dan Willingham, when "[y]ou give people the opportunity to use their preferred style or you prevent them from using their preferred style[,] you should see some difference in the effectiveness of the learning of the two groups - their comprehension of whatever task you set, their memory, something. That's the evidence that's lacking.).

Despite the lack of evidence, as of 2020, 29 states and the District of Columbia's "free, state-provided study materials reference student learning styles." Those materials are studied by aspiring teachers for their licensing exams, and so the neuromyth continues to be perpetuated ("Education Next"). Many school websites or admissions and marketing teams will trade on this myth - at this school, we identify your child's learning style and can then tailor the lesson to his/her needs. Either the school doesn't know the research on this topic, they're intentionally misleading you or they're just lying.

The claim that everyone has a learning style is not supported by research. We "may have a preference for the way [we] want to learn. However, this is not the same as having a learning style. A preference is what you like the most, not necessarily the way you would learn best" (Busch & Watson, "The Science of Learning," 2019). We would never, for example, tell a basketball player to just practice with their right hand since that is their dominant hand and feels the most comfortable. Can you imagine asking the opponents to play defense in a way that supports your preference? Of course not. It's good they can dribble well with their right hand, but it's better if they can develop both hands. Experienced coaches will tell you good players become great when they improve their weaknesses. Likewise, good learners become great when they improve their weaknesses.

Debunking the myth of learning styles rarely wins me any friends. Students, teachers and parents often want to hang on to this idea. It feels intuitive. It feels "student-centered," that cliché in education that has led many schools to fear student discomfort and failure. I've said it before: learning is hard. It takes effort - it is not a tailored, clean process; it's messy, and when you try something you've never done before, you're going to be bad at it. That's OK. That's normal. With deliberate practice, you'll improve. But telling a student they are a visual learner, for example, will produce an inflexible, fixed mindset in that child, a mindset that potentially leads students to complain, blame or quit when they are presented knowledge and skills in a different modality.

Could we discover one day that there is such a thing as learning styles? Maybe. But right now, the research points us in a different direction. Research supports and recommends teachers choosing the modality of their instruction based on the content of what they teach. In geometry, a teacher may use visual-spatial materials; in a writing course, a heavy verbal emphasis makes sense (Pashler et al, 2008). Instead of learning styles, I coach teachers to refer to a student's "current strengths and weaknesses," knowing, because of neuroplasticity, that the brain can change and that our weaknesses, if not avoided, can become our greatest assets.

Brent C. Kaneft is an English teacher and head of school at Wilson Hall.