Learning Styles Don’t Exist

Learning Styles Don’t Exist

November 16, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Hi, my name is Dan Willingham. I’m a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist, and I’m also a professor at the University of Virginia. I’m going to talk to you today about learning styles and how cognitive psychologists know….that they don’t exist Now the basic idea of learning styles seems to make a lot of sense. The idea is that different people have different ways of learning so if you can teach in way that’s consistent with a student’s style, he or she should learn better. There have been lots of these proposals over the years, like verbalizers versus visualisers or analytic vs non-analytic thinkers… I’m going to talk about what is the best known: visual vs auditory vs. kinesthetic …but what I’m going to say about this theory really goes for all the others too. So what are learning styles theories? The idea is that the way that information is organized or the way that you think about it matters in how easily you understand or learn it. Suppose you’re building a new house and you’re trying to give your friend a sense of what it will be like. A visual learner will understand best by seeing a plan… an auditory learner by listening to a description of the house, and kinesthetic learners need to move, so your kinesthetic friend might build a model. The theory says that anyone can learn in any of the three ways so the mostly visual person can still learn auditorily or kinesthetically, and likewise for the mostly kinesthetic person. But the brain doesn’t work that way. It is true that you can store memories in any of those three formats. Suppose I ask you “What is the shape of a German Shepard’s ears?” Most people say that they look at a visual mental image when they answer that question. And there is good evidence that you do indeed store that information visually. Or if I ask “Who has a deeper voice, your best friend or your boss?” You will sort of listen in your mind’s ear, and those sounds are stored auditorily. Kinesthesia is a little trickier, but it works the same way. Movements that you know really well, like riding a bicycle or tying shoelaces will be stored kinesthetically. And yes, it’s probably true that some people have clearer, vivid images and some have weak, undetailed images. Almost any characteristic of people is going to vary, whether it’s height, or weight, or visual memory so in that sense, some people are good visual thinkers. Okay, so that’s the scientific background and it sort of sounds like the theory is right, right? Let me tell you what’s wrong. Think about what the theory ought to predict. Here’s a visual learner and here’s an auditory learner Suppose I give each of them two lists of words to learn for one list I read it aloud–auditory presentation… and for another list I show a series of slides–visual presentation Later, everybody gets a test The prediction is straightforward Visual learners should learn the slides better than the words And the auditory learners should learn the words better than the slides Lots of people have done that experiment, and that’s not the result you get. The thing is, you don’t learn the words visually or auditorily. Actually, an auditory test would be about what the particular sound of the voice was, the auditory quality. For example, did you hear [high-pitched voice] “shell” or [low-pitched voice] “shell.” And a visual test would be for the particular visual qualities of the slides, what they actually look like. When you just ask people to remember the words you’re really asking them to remember meaning, not sound or visual information. And in fact, most of what teachers want students to learn is not visual or auditory or kinesthetic information it’s meaning-based. For example, you know what the word “opera” means. For you, that’s a meaning-based representation. And the meaning is independent of whether you learned the meaning by first seeing opera or hearing an aria. Most of what’s in your head, especially what you learned at school, is meaning-based. So you might think “Okay, but the visual, auditory, kinesthetic idea is right *some* of the time… …like when teachers want students to learn things that are *not* meaning-based.” It’s true, sometimes students might learn things that are essentially visual, like the shape of countries on a map Or something that’s essentially auditory, like a correct French accent. But notice what the theory’s prediction would be. The prediction of the theory is not simply that people with good auditory memory will be better at learning auditory stuff than people with average auditory memory No one would argue with that. The prediction is that an auditory learner is always going to learn better if you present things auditorily. Because that’s supposed to be his or her best modality. Well, that’s pretty obviously silly, you’re not going to try to come up with an auditory presentation of the shape of Chad. Everybody needs to see it. Okay, let me summarize what I’ve said so far. It’s true that some people have a better visual memory than other people. And other people are better at learning auditory material than other people are. But that fact isn’t really all that important for teachers because most of what teachers want students to learn is not particularly visual or auditory or kinesthetic. Most of what teachers want teachers to learn is based on meaning. The second point concerns the particular prediction of the theory. The important prediction of the theory is not that some people have better visual memory than other people. The prediction is that those people with good visual memory will always learn better if you present things visually. But that idea is clearly wrong. When you’ve got something you want students to learn that’s especially visual, like the shape of a country everybody needs to see a visual presentation, not just those people who have good visual memory. Ok, so if the theory is wrong, as I’m claiming, why does it seem so right? One reason is that everyone believes it. And not just teachers. The theory is accepted by about 90% of the students at the University of Virginia. The second reason people believe it is that something close to the theory *is* right. People can learn in different ways, and some people are good at learning certain types of information. But the specific predictions of the theory and the way that you would apply it in the classroom are wrong. A third reason this theory seems right is that if you already believe it you’ll probably interpret ambiguous situations as consistent with the theory. For example suppose you’re talking to a student about the structure of the atom but it’s not really clicking. Finally, you say “picture the solar system. The nucleus of the atom is like the sun and the electrons are like the planets spinning around it. The student understands, and you think “Aha. He must be a visual learner.” But maybe that was just a good analogy that would have helped any student. Or maybe the student needed just one more example for the idea to click. Why the student understood at that point is actually ambiguous. But if you already believe the theory, you’re likely to interpret what happened as being consistent with it. Remember, there are many theories of learning styles visual auditory kinesthetic is just one. But what I’ve said about that theory goes for the others too. Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don’t need to adjust it to individual students learning styles.