Are you a visual learner, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner? Have you adapted your learning materials to try to cater to certain student’s learning styles? If you have – you’re certainly not alone. Learning style rhetoric has dominated the field of education for many decades, and very unfortunately – may have done so in vein.
A few know, but many still don’t: our entire understanding of the learning styles phenomenon is based on sketchy, circumstantial evidence, so much so that many authors claim that the theory is a myth. So how did this myth come into being? And why do so many people believe it? Furthermore – has it actually been disproven? And if we aren’t using learning styles to inform our learning design – what should we use?
The origin of learning styles
‘Learning styles’ theories, including the most widely recognised VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic) model, begin to appear in education literature in 1979. Around that time, multiple research papers were published that supported different learning modalities, and their effects on learners. The styles theories then began to gain popularity following the publication of Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Frames of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences, although Gardner has claimed since that the book findings were never meant to support the learning styles theory. Despite this, learning styles theories continued to grow in popularity throughout the education, research, and general public communities.
Disproving learning styles
The theory of learning styles was first questioned when, in 2004, a meta-review of learning styles literature was conducted, and the literature was found to have such serious weaknesses that the authors recommended that their use be discontinued. Following this, in 2009, a paper published by scholars from world-leading universities concluded that evidence that claimed support the existence of learning styles failed to satisfy any criteria for scientific validity. Basically, both papers showed that although it is possible for learners to have different learning preferences (i.e. visual, auditory, etc.), learning cannot be improved by matching the mode of instruction to the preferred learning style of the student.
Why do so many people continue to believe learning styles exist?
Despite the fact that learning style theories have essentially been debunked, and that the shortcomings of these theories have been widely popularised in books such as 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (2009), and Urban Myths about Learning and Education (2015), research shows that 96% of teachers still believe that learning styles exist. This is, of course, primarily due to the fact that beliefs take decades to change, but also due to the fact that some claims made by learning theorists are actually correct. Whilst it isn’t true that changing the mode of instruction for an individual learner can improve learning, it is true that learners differ from each other, and that these differences affect performance. For example, a musical prodigy may be able to hear a piece of music then immediately perform it, whereas someone who has never played music before may require a combination of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning before they can perform. Thus, learners are different, but this difference is due to variations in ability, background knowledge, and interest, not due to different learning styles.
What are the alternatives?
If we are not catering to different learning styles, what theories, then, should inform the design and development of learning content?
Although there is no easy answer, as we’ll likely still be learning about how our brains work for years to come, one learning theory that is gaining prominence, and is supported by neuroscientific research, is the AGES model. The AGES model posits that learning can be optimised through a combination of gaining the learner’s full attention, generating associations with the learner’s current knowledge base, including emotional content, and allowing adequate space to ensure content is absorbed and put into practice. Although this may sound difficult to do in practice, some authoring tools, such as this mLearning platform designed by Teazl, incorporates the model into its design, so learning designers do not need to worry about how to translate theory into best practice.
Time and awareness will enable the slow erosion of any last belief in learning styles. But what will replace it? Although there is much we still have to learn about how we learn, new, evidence based, neuroscientific models such as AGES will start to exert more influence on how we design, and deliver, learning content.