Learning Styles: A Misguided Attempt to Highlight Individual Differences in Learners
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
You certainly have encountered the learning styles concept before. We have covered this topic previously. It is the idea that people have a specific learning preference and that instruction should be tailored according to that preference in order to enhance learning outcomes. You may even be at an institution that assesses students’ learning styles in order to help them understand the best way to study. Although the concept of a learning styles is widely promoted, it has no scientific evidence that justifies its application in education (1).
In today’s blog post, I would like to give a summary of a review paper by An and Carr (2) that was recently published and that caught my attention. I find their review interesting because they highlight an important and new criticism of the learning styles approach: They state that “learning styles theories are a blend of borrowed constructs or measures from other, better-developed theories”. They further claim that within the learning styles framework, these borrowed constructs are misused and incorrectly interpreted leading to detrimental and useless recommendations. In this review, an attempt is made to connect existing learning styles concepts back to actual evidence-based concepts of human cognition and tie them to helpful recommendations for teachers. It acknowledges that there are individual differences between learners, but not as conceptualized by the learning styles approach.
Not verbal versus visual learners, but multiple sensory learners
The most well-known learning styles concept is one that categorizes learners into visual versus verbal learners; with visual learners presumably benefitting more from visual aids such as graphs or diagrams and less from written text and verbal learners benefitting more from written text, but less from visualisations. However, this is not how human cognition works. In fact, we are much better off when we combine different ways of taking in information; the richer the better. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, it is the essence of why dual coding is a successful learning strategy. Combining verbal and visual representations will allow the to-be-learned material to stick better. The learning styles approach rigidly assigns a dominant learning style to a person and recommends that this guides instruction and studying. However, doing so severely limits the learner and hinders them to use their cognitive abilities to the fullest. An and Carr argue that a learning preference can indicate that a student lacks a specific skill and that “it makes no sense to focus exclusively on modalities that are strong and ignore less well-developed skills when selecting activities” (p. 3).
Not concrete versus abstract styles, but experts versus novices
Another learning styles concept is to differentiate between abstract versus concrete learners. The idea put forward here is that concrete learners need concrete entities and examples for successful learning whereas abstract learners enjoy abstract rules and representations. However, a much better way to look at individual differences is to take their prior knowledge and expertise into consideration. Doing so, makes clear that novices often use concrete steps and examples because they simply don’t have the knowledge yet to extract abstract rules or understand more abstract information. Thus, the concrete-abstract dichotomy is less a trait within a learner, but rather describes a state of a learner on her way to obtain more and more expertise on a topic. An and Carr rightly notice that “this transition will not occur if the teacher matches the instruction to the learning style and makes no effort to move the students to a more abstract representation” (p. 4).
Not impulsive versus reflective styles, but general cognitive processes and personality
Another learning styles concept categorizes students into impulsive versus reflective learners. Impulsive learners solve problems fast, but inaccurately whereas reflective learners tend to solve problems slowly, but accurately. The authors of this review explain that this dichotomy is flawed from the get go because the other combinations of speed and accuracy are definitely valid options, e.g., fast and accurate, slow and inaccurate. Experts, for example, are characterized by fast and accurate problem-solving. The reason for this is that experts can rely on well-connected and systematically organized knowledge structure that allows fast retrieval of required information. Novices, however, may elaborate for a long time on a problem without finding a solution. Furthermore, the impulsive-reflective dichotomy may stem from completely different sources that help understand learner’s needs much better than what is offered through the learning styles framework. Plus, entirely different recommendations are in place depending on what the nature of impulsivity is. The authors mention that one source of impulsivity could well be an Attention Deficit Disorder and consequently an emphasis on increasing self-regulation should be in place. An example for increased reflection is perfectionism. Perfectionism has been linked to positive, but also to negative consequences – namely if perfectionism hinders completion of tasks.
The take home message for me after reading this review paper is that the learning styles approach is a way too simplified conceptualization of human cognition paired with misguided recommendations. For me this adds to the reasons not to use them to inform education. Individual differences exist, but their nature differ from what the learning styles approach puts forward. From the evidence provided in the review, it is easy to see that tailoring instruction as suggested by the learning style approach can potentially have negative consequences for the learner.
(1) Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.
(2) An, D., & Carr, M., Learning styles theory fails to explain learning and achievement: Recommendations for alternative approaches. Personality and Individual Differences (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.050