Decoding learning styles and why you shouldn’t believe in them

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

You might have heard someone say that they are a visual learner. They learn better when lessons are presented to them visually rather than verbally. Even teachers believe that different students have different learning styles. Some are visual learners, some are auditory learners, some learn better through words and some are kinesthetic learners. For a teacher to be effective, he/she has to adapt to different kinds of teaching methods.

Despite the popularity of this theory, categorizing people by their learning styles is unscientific. By the time students reach college, they are already told what kind of a learner they are. If they struggle with a certain subject or a certain lesson, they blame the teacher for not aligning their teaching with their learning style. This is unfortunate because research has shown that people don’t necessarily have a specific learning style. Yes, they may be good at some things better than others, but solid learning doesn’t always happen by catering to strengths.


Learning styles debunked


According to a research published in Journal of Educational Psychology, it was observed that visual learners performed better than others in tests. Therefore, the researchers concluded that it was pointless for teachers to cater to auditory learners specifically. “Educators may actually be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually accommodating their auditory learning style rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills,” they wrote in their paper.


In another study published in Anatomical Sciences Education, hundreds of students were asked to answer the VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic) questionnaire. The test helps people understand their learning style. It was noticed that people who changed their learning methods according to their learning style didn’t do any better in tests. In British Journal of Psychology, a study revealed that students who identified themselves as visual learners weren’t able to remember pictures any better than their counterparts. Even those with verbal preferences weren’t able to remember words better.


That’s not all. A study published in Elsevier journal categorized a group of students into visualizers and verbalizers. They were then mixed randomly and given different lessons – one was a visual lesson, while the other was a written lesson. It was observed that visualizers provided with verbal lessons and visualizers provided with visual lessons performed similarly in tests. The same thing happened in the case of verbalizers too. “There was not strong support for the hypothesis that verbal learners and visual learners should be given different kinds of multimedia instruction,” the study declared.


In a conversation with The Atlantic, Daniel Wellingham (a Psychology professor) said, “It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you (if you do buy into learning styles). Everyone is able to think in words; everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?” Indeed, if one goes back to all the concepts they learned in school – they’ll realize that different teaching styles can work for different topics. A geography lesson would obviously work better with a map and an English comprehension class doesn’t require any visual images.


Instead of using the learning styles theory, teachers can use different evidence-based learning methods to their advantage. It has been proven that using a student’s prior knowledge can prove beneficial. When an old part of the brain connects with a new one, learning becomes simpler.


Some other examples of evidence-based learning include individualized learning, peer tutoring and metacognition. If a child is struggling at school, personalized attention from a tutor can help. Learning from a friend who is in the same class is also beneficial.


Metacognition (or thinking about thinking) is another evidence-based process that helps students excel. According to John Spencer, a bestselling author (of books like Vintage Innovation) and a full-time professor, “If we want students to become lifelong learners, they need to know how to own their learning; which means they need to know how to think about thinking.”


Our dual personalities – the hindrance to learning


Let’s imagine there are two people in your head. One is called Jai and the other is called Veeru. While Veeru is always focused on his job, Jai loves lounging on the sofa. Veeru doesn’t need an alarm to wake up - he is having breakfast at 6:30 am with a ‘seize the day’ mentality. On the other hand, Jai wakes up at 11 am after a heavy night’s drinking. He is struggling to keep his head straight while having breakfast at 11.30 am. At night, Veeru looks back at his day and makes a list of things he’s accomplished. Jai just orders his favourite biryani and watches TV until he falls asleep.


When learning, we need to choose between the two to gain maximum output. If we allow Veeru to exist all the time, we’d be too exhausted by the end of day. If Jai takes control, we’ll continue to procrastinate the whole day. Finding a balance between the two and allowing the right one to dominate is vital to one’s learning journey.


The reason we used to hate going to school is because it forced us to think and find solutions for our problems and challenges. Learning only happens when there is a level of discomfort that forces you to understand the concept properly. Education is not about how it’s presented, it’s about what’s happening in the mind.


References:

  1. The Biggest Myth In Education (Veritasium)

  2. The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’ (The Atlantic)

  3. Fact or Fiction? The Myth That We Have Specific Learning Styles, Debunked (HMH)

  4. Four reasons to avoid 'learning styles' – and one alternative