As a teacher I was trained that pupils fall into one of three groups:
- Visual learners learn best by reading and writing notes and watching demonstrations and videos.
- Auditory learners learn best by listening to their teacher and by talking about and discussing the material being studied.
- Kinaesthetic (or “active”) learners learn best by doing; by carrying out experiments and directly experiencing the material in a hands-on way.
and that pupils should be taught according to their preferred learning styles.
A report by the Learning and Skills Research Centre (Coffield et al, 2004) found that:
“A thriving commercial industry has also been built to offer advice to teachers, tutors and managers on learning styles, and much of it consists of inflated claims and sweeping conclusions which go beyond the current knowledge base and the specific recommendations of particular theorists.”
“[F]or [some teachers], learning styles are the central doctrine in a quasi-evangelical crusade to transform all levels of education.”
As a result names like Myers-Briggs and Honey & Mumford have become all too familiar to teachers.
A paper by Krätzig and Arbuthnott (2006) investigated the learning styles hypothesis. Their results were damning, to say the least.
They found that:
“[T]here were no significant correlations between learning style and objective memory performance … [our] results cast doubt on the central assumptions of the learning style model as it is used in education.
“An assessment of learning style does not provide information about an individual’s best learning environment.”
and concluded that:
“[F]ocusing on learning styles as defined by sensory modalities [learning styles] may be a wasted effort … [M]ost people are likely multimodal and multisituational learners, changing learning strategies depending on the context of the to-be-learned material.
“[P]resenting material to students in multiple sensory modalities is undoubtedly beneficial to learning and interest.”
Harrison et al (2003) investigated the tests used to assess pupils’ learning styles and found that:
“There are a myriad of instruments available commercially, from standardized formal tests of learning styles to informal learning styles questionnaires that claim to provide educators with information on students’ unique approaches to learning. Unfortunately, most of these instruments lack a sound theoretical basis. Indeed, many have never been validated, and it is uncertain what exactly is being measured.”
This agrees with initial findings by Krätzig and Arbuthnott in which the two different methods they used to assess pupils’ learning styles agreed only 45% of the time.
Harrison et al concluded that:
“[T]he ability to draw on multiple strategies for different tasks distinguishes good and poor learners.”
Now don’t even get me started on Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Updates, and more information:
- Why are we still talking about Learning Styles? on researchED 2013.
- Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic Instruction? on AFT.
- Coffield, F. et al (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review (Report No. 041543), London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. Link
- Harrison, G. et al (2003) Current perspectives on cognitive learning styles, Education Canada, 43(2), pp. 44-47. Link
- Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis, Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), pp. 238-246. doi: 10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.124