When I was in high school, many many years ago, I was given a test by my teacher to determine my learning style. I answered all the questions, returned the test to her, and a little later she told me “you're a kinaesthetic learner.” Apparently this meant that I learnt best by physically doing things, rather than simply watching or listening to something.
I was then given a piece of paper which contained tips for how I could match what I was learning with my learning style. With PE it was easy, I just needed to ensure that I physically copied the moves that the teacher demonstrated. For subjects such as maths and English it was a little more difficult. But I could, so the piece of paper told me, do things such as walk around whilst reading a book.
A Kinaesthetic learner in an auditory and visual learning environment.
At university, I studied an academic subject. Without exception, all the information that I was meant to learn was presented to me either visually – through books and articles that I had to read – or via auditory means – namely lectures.
What was a kinaesthetic learner like me supposed to do!? You might think that I had to spend my time going for long walks with textbooks, or creating dance moves to represent the information I was reading. But I didn't. I studied in much the same way as my peers – with my nose in a pile of books and my hand regularly reaching for a cup coffee.
This apparent disadvantage that I faced, as a kinaesthetic learning being taught in a solely visual and auditory manner, didn't seem to have much of a negative effect on me. I consistently received high marks on my exams and essays, and graduated with first class honours.
The (lack of) evidence for learning styles.
Am I some sort exceptional learner who is able to thrive in any learning environment, despite my apparent learning style? Probably not. My experience is far from unique, and the reason has nothing to do with me, but rather the concept of learning styles and learning styles based teaching methods.
The idea that students can be grouped by learning styles, and then taught accordingly, became popular in the 1970s and spread throughout the educational establishments of the English speaking world.
However, as early as 1990 there was a growing body of research showing that this idea was fundamentally flawed. With educational psychologists such as Lynn Curry pointing out that there is little evidence for the efficacy of learning styles based teaching methods and that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds.
The evidence for the inefficacy of learning styles based teaching methods has only continued to grow since. In 2018 the Education Endowment Foundation produced a summarary of a large number of studies into learning styles based teaching methods. It concluded that:
“There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.”
"The lack of impact of learning styles has been documented at all stages of education but it is particularly important not to label primary age pupils or for them to believe that their lack of success is due to their learning style.”
Renowned professor of education Steven A. Stahl has said that there has been an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching [them] to instructional methods has any effect on their learning."
The University of Virginia psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel T. Williams went further and said that “learning styles don't exist”. And the famous British neuroscientist Susan Greene described the idea of learning styles based teaching methods simply as “nonsense”.
Moreover, learning styles appear as myth number 18, in the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. And in 2017 a research paper publish in Frontiers in Psychology reported that 90% of academics agreed that the idea of learning styles is “conceptually flawed” and 63% of those surveyed went as far as to say that the idea “undermines the credibility of education”.
Old habits die hard. But die they must.
Despite the huge body of evidence, available to anyone at the click of a button, the learning styles myth persists. In fact, just a couple of years ago I attended a teacher training programme in which much time was dedicate to this idea. We were all given tests to determine our own learning style, and advice on how to identify our students' learning styles and teach them accordingly.
Perhaps this is just a case of old habits dying hard. But regardless of our personal preferences, as teachers we owe it to our students to teach them using ideas and methods that have been proven to be effective. Or, at the very least, not to use methods that has been proven to be ineffective. As such, we should cease to employ learning styles based teaching methods in our classes.
But, of course, there are different ways – including visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – to teach. So, if not by appealing to students' learning styles, how should we decide which way to deliver the information or ideas that we want to teach?
The answer is to choose the method which is most appropriate to the content that you are teaching. If you are teaching a dance class, for example, then it would be most effective to do so visually and kinaesthetically. Whereas, if you are teaching the Socratic method of debate it would be most effective do so in an auditory manner.
But we don't need to limit ourselves to just presenting information via one method. There is evidence to suggest that it is beneficial, for all students, to have different representations of ideas when developing understanding.
So as an English language teacher, if I were teaching new vocabulary it may help all of my students if I were to show pictures that represent the words (visual), do TRP exercises to match the words (kinaesthetic) and explain the meaning of the words (auditory).
The takeaway should be that teaching methods need to match what is being taught. And, that whilst all students can benefit from being taught using a variety of methods, there is no evidence to support the idea that we can usefully categorises students by learning styles.
More generally, it is important to question the assumptions we have about what we do in the classroom and to ensure that how we teach is based on solid evidence and not outdated, discredited, ideas.