Finding your preferred style of learning could boost your academic performance, according to the popular theory of learning styles.
While a whopping 96% of teachers subscribe to this idea, a new study carried out by scientists suggests that there’s no evidence to support it.
Do learning styles matter or are they simply a myth? Read on to find out.
Where did the learning styles concept originate?
The concept of individual learning styles became popular in the 1970s, when Walter Burke Barbe; Raymond H Swassing and Michael N Milone published a book called “Teaching through modality strengths : concepts and practices”.
In the book, the authors proposed the VAK model, which consists of three learning styles; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. In 1987, Neil Fleming added writing/reading to create the popular VARK model.
The VARK Model
learn more effectively via pictures, charts, diagrams, flow charts and maps
learn more effectively via lectures, tutorials, discussions, tapes, web chats or hearing their own voice repeating information
learn more effectively via reading
text and writing notes
learn more effectively via hands-on-activities, object manipulation and body movement
What did the new study involve?
Carried out by researchers from the University of Indiana’s School of Medicine, the new study began with hundreds of undergraduate students taking an online VARK questionnaire in order to discover their dominant learning style. They were then enrolled in an anatomy class and asked to follow the study study strategies given during the questionnaire.
At the end of the year, the researchers found that there was absolutely no correlation between the students’ dominant learning style and their grades. 67% of students didn’t even study in the recommended way and those who did, didn’t achieve better grades.
This result wouldn’t have come as a surprise to psychology Professor Hal Pashler and his colleagues, who conducted an in depth analysis of learning styles in 2008 . The team’s research revealed that there was no proper data to support the use of learning styles in education and that teaching ‘visual’ learners using visual methods doesn’t have any impact on how well they learn.
A flexible approach to learning styles
Pashler concluded that instead of categorising each student as a particular type of learner, educators should expose them to a variety of different learning styles. However, the choice of materials and teaching methods should depend on the content being studied. For example:
“The optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual–spatial materials. “
According to Taylor and Francis Online, this flexible approach is also recommended by the authors of a study known as The Expertise Reversal Effect. The study states that teaching styles should depend on how much students know about a particular subject. Experienced learners find it easier to remember new information about a subject because it becomes part of an established pattern in their brain, so they should be encouraged to discover information independently. Learners who are new to a subject need a teacher who will present them with the essential information and point out any patterns that exist.
Ability is another factor that influences student learning styles. Studies have suggested that lower-ability students process information more easily in extremely structured environments with lots of input from teachers, while higher-ability students learn more in less structured environments, where they are able to work independently.
Some learning strategies have been shown to improve the results of all students, whatever they’re preferred learning style.
Successful Study Strategies
Retrieval practice through frequent tests and quizzes
Spacing the teaching and reviewing of a topic over time
Completing practice papers
Mixing up different problem types and topics, particularly for maths and science
Combining different activities (such as drawing) alongside more passive study
Do learning styles really pose a problem?
In March 2017, according to The Guardian, 30 neuroscientists exposed what they described as the “neuromyth” of learning styles. They urged educators to reject the theory, claiming that it creates a “false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.”
The scientists were concerned that categorising each student as a particular type of learner would result in rigidity and lack of motivation. At a time when the world needs adaptable, confident learners, promoting the concept of learning styles could actually prevent students from developing these traits.
So how can you avoid this if you’re looking to study one of our courses? It’s simple. Whether you think of yourself as a visual learner, an auditory learner or a kinesthetic learner, don’t stick to the same old study strategies. Try a few alternative learning styles and you’ll have a greater chance of unlocking your full potential.