You have to read this article to understand it, but many people think that reading is not the best way to learn. They prefer to listen to an explanation or see a diagram. The researchers formalized these intuitions into theories of learning styles. These theories are influential enough that many states (including New York) require future teachers to know them and to know how they can be used in the classroom.
But there is no solid scientific evidence that the learning styles actually exist.
Over the past decades, researchers have come up with dozens of theories, each suggesting a scheme for categorizing learners. The best known suggests that some of us like words and some like pictures, but other theories make different distinctions: whether you like to solve problems intuitively or by analyzing them, for example, or if you prefer to approach a complex idea with the big picture or by diving into the details.
If any of these theories were correct, it would provide significant benefits. In class, a short test would classify children as this type of learner or this, and then a teacher could include more than this Where this in their schooling. In the workplace, a manager can send a memo to one employee but communicate the same information to another during a conversation.
Does such a match work? To find out, researchers need to determine the supposed learning style of individuals, and then ask them to learn something in a way that matches or conflicts with it. For example, in an experiment Testing the visuo-auditory theory, the researchers determined the subjects’ styles by asking them about their usual mental strategies: do you spell an unfamiliar word while pronouncing it or visualizing the letters? Do you give instructions in words or by drawing a map?
Next, the researchers read the statements and participants rated how easily the statement elicited a mental image (a visual learning experience) or how easy it was to pronounce (an auditory learning experience). Auditory learners should have remembered statements better if they focused on sound rather than creating visual images, and visual learners should have shown the reverse pattern. But they didn’t.
The theory is wrong, but, oddly enough, people act like it’s right – they try to learn in accordance with what they think is their style. When experimenters asked research participants to learn a new task and gave them access to written instructions and diagrams, people who saw themselves as verbalizers searched for words, and self-proclaimed visualizers looked at pictures. But the tests showed that they did not learn the task faster because they adhered to their purported style.
In another experience, the researchers listened to brain activity to show that people will mentally change a task to align with what they think is their learning style. The researchers used stimuli that were either images (a triangle with blue stripes) or verbal descriptions (“green”, “dotted”, “square”). While in a brain scan, participants had to match successive stimuli, but they never knew if a picture or words would pop up next.
When self-proclaimed visual learners saw words, the visual part of their brain was active; they transformed the verbal stimulus into an image. Likewise, verbal areas of the brain were active when verbal learners saw a picture; they described it to themselves. But again, these efforts were in vain. People did not perform better when the stimuli matched what they considered their learning style.
The problem isn’t just that trying to learn your own style doesn’t help, it can cost you money. Learning style theories ignore the fact that one mental strategy may be much better suited to a particular task than another. For example, consider the theory that differentiates intuitive and reflective thinking. The first is fast and relies on associations in memory; the latter is slower and more analytical.
Whatever your claimed style, intuitive thinking is better for problems requiring creativity, and reflective thinking is better for formal problems such as probability calculations. An intuitive thinker who sticks to their supposed learning style on a statistics test will fail.
While conforming to learning styles doesn’t help, there are a few lessons we can learn from this research.
First, instead of trying to transform a task to match your style, transform your thinking to match the task. the the best strategy for a task is the best strategy, whatever your learning style.
Second, don’t let your so-called style be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or an excuse for resignation. “Sorry, I got the dates confused – I’m just not a linear thinker” is nonsense. Likewise, don’t tell your child’s teacher that they are having difficulty in class because the teacher is not adapting to their learning style.
Finally, the idea of tailoring tasks to an individual’s style offered hope that a simple change could improve performance at school and at work. We’ve seen that it doesn’t work, but this research sheds light on another kind of hope. We are not limited by our learning style. Any type of learning is open to all of us.
Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and most recently author of “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads”.