This story offers both good and bad news: I’ll let you sort out whether there’s more good than bad…
The bad news: according to a just-published study, 58% of college professors in Britain believe in learning styles theory. This belief persists despite considerable evidence showing that…well…the theory just isn’t true.
(More precisely: considerable evidence showing that the many conflicting versions of the theory don’t have good evidence to support them.)
The good-ish news: although 58% is too high, it’s also lower than other numbers found in surveys of British K-12 teachers.
The oddly good news: although many profs believe in this theory, relatively few of them do anything about it. That is, only 33% report using any specific techniques that they ascribe to learning styles theory.
In my view, that’s good news (because relatively few people are doing anything with a potentially harmful theory), but also bad news (because we want teachers to use the (correct) conclusions of learning science that they believe in).
In other words: in our ideal world, we want all teachers to KNOW what psychology and neuroscience can accurately tell us about learning–and we want them to USE that knowledge.
Learning Styles vs. Individual Differences
Paradoxically, many people believe in learning styles theory because they misunderstand it.
The theory says that we can divide people up into different groups of learners (“visual, auditory, kinesthetic” is the best-known version of the theory), and then teach those groups in ways that match their style. If we do so, they’ll learn better.
(Here’s yet another article showing the falsity of the theory.)
However, I think most people understand learning styles theory this way: “all people learn differently, and therefore I should present my content in different ways to be sure that all people can get it in their unique way.”
This theory a) is absolutely true, and b) is NOT what learning styles theory says.
Learning styles theory, again, says that we can diagnose distinct categories of learners, and teach people within those subgroups the same way.
This second theory–called “individual differences”–says that we all learn somewhat differently from each other.
There is no group of people who learn exactly the same way I do. I’m a learning style of one.
For this reason, we could “teach to a student’s learning style” only if everyone were tutored individually. Because schools teach students in groups, teachers should indeed teach all content in many different ways–so that each of us with our individual learning styles can grok these new ideas.
If I truly believed in learning styles theory, I should–instead–test all of my students to determine their style, and then sort them into distinct groups. After that sorting has happened, I should then teach each group differently; all people in each subgroup learn the same way, so they’ll learn best when I teach in that one style only.
What to Do with this Research?
Are you already teaching your content in multiple different ways? If yes, then you’re already following an individual differences theory (not learning styles theory). Keep doing what you’re doing.
If no, try to do so as much as possible. If your students don’t understand when you explain a concept one way, try drawing a picture. Or, use several analogies. Or, have a hands-on demo. Or, give several examples, and have students abstract a principle from them. Or, have students explain it to each other. Or, find a song that enacts the concept you want to explain. Or…
If you’re still a learning styles enthusiast, I suggest that you click some of the links above and see why psychologists just don’t believe the theory. You might also check out Chapter 7 of Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?; as always, he does an excellent job of clarifying a complex topic.
You should also keep asking questions when you get to the next Learning and the Brain conference. You’ll meet plenty of wise and well informed people who can distinguish between “learning styles” and “individual differences,” and contrast the evidence behind both.