The Learning Styles Myth

You might as well ask your horoscope

Since I was into faster learning, I have heard of the theory of learner types and learning styles. No wonder as that theory is around since the seventies. It was Frederic Vester who spread this problematic idea with his book „Denken, lernen, vergessen.“ But in the beginning I was fascinated by the idea that we could optimize our learning by preparing the material we had to digest according to our individual genetic? preferences.

The website: Learning Styles Online is assuming seven learning styles. Depending on your source there are countless other styles out there. I quote:

  • Visual (spatial):You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Learning Styles: An Abundance of Randomness

This categorization seems pretty random to me as it gathers quite different styles under one roof. Visual, aural, physical are referring to mere sensory input while logical and verbal are cognitive ways of processing information. Social and solitary are rather two sides of the same medal and can be considered different behaviors at best.

It is pretty obvious that many „styles“ are overlapping. Verbal skills always require some sort of logic and system (e.g. grammar), and while writing (verbal) you need your hand (physical). Social and solitary are simply setting the framework for all other „styles“ and can therefore not be in the same category.

This kind of conflict is seen with all other categorizations of learning styles as well. And it shows the main problem of this approach: in real life those styles are not isolatable. That means that every learner applies several styles at all times. Now one might think that maybe one style is dominant. But how do you measure which one? There is a multitude of tests out there. None of which have been proven to be informative enough to come to a conclusion about which learning style dominates. 

Learning styles are nonsense
die Pupille / Image via Pixabay

Isolation would be good

Then if those styles are neither isolatable nor measurable, the question arises, why bother? In a class of at least 2 learners I would have to consider two -and most likely more- different learning styles.

But what if the topic and or the material doesn’t allow me to serve those styles or at least one of them? What if I have 20 students? Which learning style theory do I apply and according to which test do I segregate the students into fitting groups?

Even if I managed to segregate lets say five groups with similar learning traits it would mean an immense effort to prepare the room and the material for each lesson, not speaking of testing all those students.

All tests also heavily rely on the claims of the student about his or her approach. Studies have shown that the way a student perceives her or his learning is often opposed to what she or he actually applies. That means their results are highly unreliable.

You are a way more flexible learner than you might think

There are yet quite a few other points that are simply not conclusive that I would like to mention at least. Some studies show that students usually adapt to the learning situation. The psychological concept of neuro-plasticity supports this observation. What that means is that learning styles are not fixed for good. They are variable and can change with the appropriate effort and motivation. And if they can change it seems to make even more sense to let the student adapt to one teacher or setting than letting the teacher adapt to thousands of students.

Then there is evidence that our culture heavily influences the way we approach new information. Now if a Yemenite wants to learn German in Germany he will most likely have to adapt to the German teaching style or simply fail. Most classes here are filled with people from all over the world. How could any teacher pay regard to all those possibly different learning styles?

Some Science

By now you should have realized that the theory of learning types or styles is one big mess which I would never build any lesson on.

To cite that all popular wikipedia.

„Coffield’s team found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research, leading to the conclusion that the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all “highly questionable.”

Conclusion: Address all senses – You don’t have a choice anyhow

My lessons respectively instructions always include all possible skills: reading, listening, writing, speaking and above all: thinking under which I subsume among others analyzing and concluding. Each of us has certain strengths and weaknesses but I haven’t come across a student yet that couldn’t at least work sufficiently with all the tasks that I provided her or him with. I put emphasis on the strengths and try to strengthen the weak skills carefully.

In this article I have focussed a bit on learning with a tutor, yet I think that even when you learn on your own, the effort put into preparing learning material according to your assumed (!) dominant learning style stands in no relation to the assumed benefit over simply working with what’s there.

After all, opposed to what I often read, we are not that different from each other when it comes to learning. And that is only logical as we all use the same channels of perception and our thinking is, well, human. That means it most probably follows certain patterns that we all share.

You can focus on real learning now.