Learning styles: what does the research say?
This post is the third in a periodic series exploring common misconceptions around how students learn. We first touched on these misconceptions in our September 2015 report, The Science of Learning, and will be exploring them in more depth over the next few months.
In today’s post, Dr. Dylan Wiliam explores what the research tells us about learning styles. Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University College London. He served as dean and head of the School of Education (and later assistant principal) at King’s College London, senior research director at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, and deputy director (provost) of the Institute of Education, University of London. Since 2010, he has devoted most of his time to research and teaching.
Since the beginning of Psychology as a field of study, psychologists have been categorizing people: as introverts and extroverts, in terms of their conscientiousness, their openness to experience, and so on. While many of these classification systems examine general personality, a number of classifications look specifically at the way people think—what is sometimes called their cognitive style. When solving problems, for example, some people like to focus on getting the evidence that is most likely to be relevant to the problem at hand, while others have a tendency to “think out of the box.”
More specifically still, many psychologists have moved from cognitive style—how people think—to the idea of learning style—how people learn (Adey, Fairbrother, Wiliam, Johnson, & Jones, 1999).
The basic idea is, of course, very attractive. We know that a particular piece of instruction might be effective for some students, and not for others, so it seems plausible that if the instruction was specifically designed to take into account a particular student’s preferred learning style, then it would be more effective for that student. This is what psychologists call the general learning-styles hypothesis—the idea that instruction students receive will be more (or less) effective if the instruction takes (or does not take) into account the student’s learning-style preferences.
Within education, a version of the learning-styles hypothesis, known by psychologists as the meshing hypothesis, has been of particular interest: the idea that students will learn more if they receive instruction that specifically matches their learning-style preferences. In other words, visual learners will learn better if they receive instruction that emphasizes visual ways of presenting information, and auditory learners will learn best by listening.
In their review of research on learning styles for the Association for Psychological Science, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) came to a stark conclusion: “If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” (p. 117)
Pashler et al pointed out that experiments designed to investigate the meshing hypothesis would have to satisfy three conditions:
- Based on some assessment of their presumed learning style, learners would be allocated to two or more groups (e.g., visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners).
- Learners within each of the learning-style groups would be randomly allocated to at least two different methods of instruction (e.g., visual and auditory based approaches).
- All students in the study would be given the same final test of achievement.
In such experiments, the meshing hypothesis would be supported if the results showed that the learning method that optimizes test performance of one learning-style group is different than the learning method that optimizes the test performance of a second learning-style group.
In their review, Pashler et al found only one study that gave even partial support to the meshing hypothesis, and two that clearly contradicted it.
Now, the fact that there is currently no evidence that knowing students’ learning styles helps us design more effective instruction does not mean that learning styles will never be useful in the future—absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Some psychologists are no doubt likely to continue to look for new ways to look at learning styles, even though there are at least 71 different learning-style classification systems already in existence (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004). However, it could be that the whole idea of learning-styles research is misguided because its basic assumption—that the purpose of instructional design is to make learning easy—may just be incorrect.
Over the last 30 years, psychologists have found that performance on a learning task is a poor predictor of long-term retention. More precisely, when learners do well on a learning task, they are likely to forget things more quickly than if they do badly on the learning task; good instruction creates “desirable difficulties” (Bjork, 1994 p. 193) for the learner. In Daniel Willingham’s memorable phrase, “memory is the residue of thought” (Willingham, 2009). By trying to match our instruction to our students’ preferred learning style, we may, in fact, be reducing learning. If students do not have to work hard to make sense of what they are learning, then they are less likely to remember it in six weeks’ time.
Attempting to synthesize such a large and complex body of research is almost certainly a fool’s errand, but it seems to me that the important “takeaway” from the research on learning styles is that teachers need to know about learning styles if only to avoid the trap of teaching in the style they believe works best for them. As long as teachers are varying their teaching style, then it is likely that all students will get some experience of being in their comfort zone and some experience of being pushed beyond it. Ultimately, we have to remember that teaching is interesting because our students are so different, but only possible because they are so similar. Of course each of our students is a unique individual, but it is extraordinary how effective well-planned group instruction can be.
Adey, P. S., Fairbrother, R. W., Wiliam, D., Johnson, B., & Jones, C. (1999). A review of research related to learning styles and strategies. London, UK: King’s College London Centre for the Advancement of Thinking.
Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. P. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 188-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Development Agency.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.