Learning Styles: Going, Going, Almost Gone: Recent Studies Find That the Scientific Research on Learning Styles Is Weak and Unconvincing

By Galagan, Pat | T&D, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Learning Styles: Going, Going, Almost Gone: Recent Studies Find That the Scientific Research on Learning Styles Is Weak and Unconvincing


Galagan, Pat, T&D


Learning styles theory, although not on the rocks of full discredit, is in the dangerous shoals of scientific questioning. Research during the past five years has undermined the validity of learning styles--a popular belief that people learn best through a particular "modality" such as hearing, seeing, or manipulating objects, and that training should accommodate people's learning styles to be more effective.

In 2009, a team of researchers led by Hal Pashler from the University of Southern California at San Diego found that "although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners, those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible." Pashler's team concluded that "well-designed studies contradict the widespread 'meshing hypothesis,' that a student will learn best if taught in a method deemed appropriate for the student's learning style."

The journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest reported in 2009 that although more than 70 models of learning styles exist, "nearly all studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity." The article also states that "psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim."

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Even education psychologist Howard Gardner has weighed in, recently reminding people that his theory of multiple intelligences is not about learning styles. "Please stop confusing multiple intelligences with learning styles," he stated in a 2013 Washington Post article.

Gardner opposes the idea of linking learners to a specific intelligence. In his view, each person possesses a unique blend of all the intelligences. Gardner firmly maintains that his theory of multiple intelligences should "empower learners," not restrict them to one modality of learning.

Psychologist and University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham has described how educators have added to the confusion about learning styles. Such approaches, he writes, "are unlikely to help students."

Willingham, whose research focuses on the application of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to education, has called learning styles theory "bunk." In 2010, he wrote, "There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist." Although students do have preferences about how they learn, the evidence shows they absorb information just as well whether or not they encounter it in their preferred mode.

However, Willingham concedes in a blog post that "It's possible to have effective practices motivated by a theory that lacks scientific support." Thinking about learning styles may spark a teacher's creativity in how he presents material, but learning styles should not be confused with how people learn.

The life cycle of learning styles

Educational theorist David Kolb was among the first to propose a theory of learning styles. His 1984 book, Experiential Learning, presents a model consisting of four learning styles: accommodating, converging, diverging, and assimilating. …

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