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Core Concept Collection Article Published: August 27, 2020

It Is Complicated: Learning and Teaching Is Not About “Learning Styles”

Abstract

Learning styles is perhaps one of the most widespread and believed myths in education. The idea is based on the claim that all students can be classified according to their particular learning style, and that they learn best when teachers match instruction to the preferred style of the student. This popular theory has been proven false by many learning scientists. Learning styles theory reduces sophisticated and complex processes like teaching and learning into overly simple categories and labels students in ways that can limit their potential. Studies performed by scientists who study the brain and education have found that learning and teaching are much more complicated than simply matching teaching to a student’s learning style.

What Does the Idea of Learning Styles Claim?

You might have heard some teachers say that students have different learning styles. For example, maybe they said some people are “visual learners” who prefer to learn by seeing, or that other students are “auditory learners” who learn best by listening, or “kinesthetic learners” who learn best by doing. Maybe you have even taken a survey or test to find out your own learning style. Many people believe that all students can be classified according to their preferred learning styles and that students learn best when teachers match the way they teach to the preferred learning style of the student. Although the theory of learning styles is very popular, it has been proven false by many neuroscientists. Despite evidence to suggest that learning styles are not true, many educators still believe it [1]. The idea of learning styles is an example of a neuromyth, which is a commonly held false belief about how the brain functions. In this article, we will describe why the learning styles claim is a neuromyth and discuss why it could be harmful to believe this myth. We will also explain how neuroscience, which is the study of how the brain works, helps us to understand the complexities of teaching and learning.

Why is the Learning Styles Claim a Neuromyth?

The idea of learning styles lacks scientific evidence to support it. However, many teachers, and much of the general population, believe that learning styles exist. Learning styles is perhaps one of the most widely believed neuromyths [2]. One research group [3] found that over 90% of teachers believe in learning styles and another [4] showed that over 60% of teachers think that teaching to students’ learning styles helps the students to learn.

Apparently, many people are easily convinced to believe in unproven claims if those claims seem to include neuroscience details. Learning styles is an example of an educational tool that seems so right because there are parts of the claim that are true1. For example, people do have preferences for how they learn, or ways they like to learn the best. Presenting information in several different ways is an important educational practice that teachers learn about in teacher’s college. However, this does not that mean matching teaching to a student’s preferred way of learning actually improves their understanding, because the brain does not work that way.

Why is the Learning Styles Neuromyth Harmful?

The belief in learning styles can be harmful because the theory of learning styles reduces complicated processes like teaching and learning into overly simple categories and labels students in ways that can limit their potentials (see Figure 1). It is appealing to assume that students could learn more easily if instruction was simply changed to match their individual learning styles, but the way the brain processes information is much more complicated than that.

Figure 1 - How you learn info graphic.
  • Figure 1 - How you learn info graphic.
  • The info graphic illustrates how you learn is not easily reduced or categorized. Created by Brendon Ehinger (http://ehinger.ca/).

Imagine this: you determine you are a visual learner, meaning you prefer instructions that are presented visually. In French class, you are working on developing your conversational skills and accent. You read and see many written examples of conversations and there are even phonetic spellings presented (the words are written out the way they sound), but your preference for visual information is really not helping you speak better French. You struggle to pronounce many words and to understand what a French speaker is saying. Your learning style, “visual learner,” does not seem to help you learn better in this situation! Learning a language and the practice of that language require the coordinated use of seeing, hearing, and doing. In addition to these three skills, memory, emotion, motivation, thinking, and imagination are also important parts of the learning process [5]. It is often not possible for teachers to try to limit their teaching to specific learning styles, and it could potentially be harmful to learning if they try to do so—it could create a lot of frustration! We ask that teachers be extremely cautious of the neuromyth of learning styles, because there is no scientific evidence that teaching to specific learning styles actually produces better learning.

Instead, learning happens in an interconnected way. When you remember any piece of information, you process that information using multiple senses, combining what you heard, said, remembered, saw, felt, smelled, etc. Therefore, if teachers believe in the learning styles claim and attempt to limit students to a particular learning style, this could significantly reduce which senses and processes are used for learning, which could impair the ability of some students to learn new information.

Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand the Complexity of Teaching and Learning

Neuroscience helps us understand the complexity of how the brain grows and changes when learning happens. Teachers should know that neuroscience research indicates that learning is based on experience, not learning styles. Therefore, learning about neuroscience helps teachers provide better instruction in the classroom. In teacher’s college, we learn about how our brains have plasticity, which means our brains adapt to our experiences. So, teachers should expose students to a lot of experiences, in many different ways, and also take into consideration students’ prior knowledge, abilities, and interests. Daily events in our lives and the lessons we learn in the classrooms create neural networks that help us use and remember what we have learned. A neural network consists of many interconnected brain cells, called neurons. At birth, a human has only a small percentage of the neural network and the vast majority of the network is created through life experience2 Meaningful explorations and practice strengthen neural networks and also help students feel more confident, capable, and connected to what they are learning. In response to experiences, neurons form and eventually whole networks of connections can become specialized for functions like speaking an additional language. So, as we learn new things, our brains adapt by creating new connections between neurons, changing the neural network. Learning takes time and practice, just like learning to speak a new language the more you practice and the more you are exposed to the language, the more efficient you will be at processing and performing skills like speaking and comprehending.

Learning is Complex

The neuromyth of learning styles can be very problematic, as it reduces learning and teaching process into overly simple processes that do not actually help students learn more efficiently. Even though this theory has been proven false, many people still believe it! Learning styles is one of the most popular neuromyths among teachers. What is important to remember is that learning actually involves underlying thinking processes and relies on our experiences. We know that students’ background knowledge, abilities, and interests are central to their learning, not learning styles. The process of learning and the ways that our bodies and brains are interconnected is multifaceted, and scientists who study learning are still discovering and understanding how these processes work. Learners need to be exposed to a variety of tasks and have information presented in multiple ways. The ways information is presented must be meaningful not only to what is being learned (like a new language), but also to the learner. We hope you can see that teaching is much more complicated than simply matching a learner to a learning style!

Glossary

Learning Styles: A theory about how people can be classified according to a preferred way of learning, such as visually, auditory, or kinesthetically and instruction works best when it is matched to their preferred way of learning.

Neuroscientists: Scientists that study the brain and how it impacts thinking and behaviors.

Neuromyth: A commonly held false belief about how the brain functions.

Neuroscience: The scientific study of the structure and function of the brain and nervous system.

Plasticity: The brains ability to form new connections, be flexible, and ability to be modified by experience.

Neural Network: Consist of many interconnected neurons.

Neuron: A cell in the nervous systems that sends information to other cells (other nerve cells, muscles, or gland cells). Nerve cells are considered the basic units of the brain.

Multifaceted: Includes many parts.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank those who assisted in the translation of the articles in this Collection to make them more accessible to kids outside English-speaking countries, and for the Jacobs Foundation for providing the funds necessary to translate the articles. For this article, we would especially like to thank Ilona Benneker for the Dutch translation.


Footnotes

[1] See danielwillingham.com

[2] See https://husman-memory.net/brain-neurons-synapses/


References

[1] Riener, C. and Willingham, D. 2010. The myth of learning styles. Change. 42:32–35. doi: 10.1080/00091383.2010.503139

[2] Newton, P. M. 2015. The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Educ. Psychol. 6:1908. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908

[3] Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., and Jolles, J. 2012. Neuromyths in education: prevalence and predicators of misconceptions among teachers. Front. Psychol. 3:429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

[4] Dandy, L. and Bendersky, K. 2014. Student and faculty beliefs about learning in higher education: implications for teaching. Int. J. Teach. Learn. High. Educ. 26:358–80. Available online at: http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/

[5] Geake, J. 2008. Neuromythologies in education. Educ. Res. 50:123–33. doi: 10.1080/00131880802082518