We take an in-depth look at learning styles and how they might affect your studying success, both positively and negatively, in this week’s learning science deep dive.

We Each Have Our Own Learning Style, Right?

If you’ve been a student in the past 40 years or have little students of your own, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘learning style.’ In short, the theory posits that individuals will assimilate information more efficiently if presented in a way that aligns with their preferred learning methods.

But what does that mean IRL? Well, to put the theory into practice, someone’s learning style is assessed. This is where an individual can indicate how they prefer to receive information (reading it vs. seeing it vs. hearing it). This means if you’re someone who prefers to learn with pictures, you’d be categorized as a visual learner. If you’re someone who learns best by reading, you’d be categorized as a reading learner.

Differing Assessments For Your Learning Style

Assessing learning styles usually comes in the form of filling out some type of questionnaire. Here’s an example from the popular VARK (Visual Aural Read/Write Kinesthetic) assessment:

I want to learn how to take better photos. I would:

  • Use diagrams showing the camera and what each part does.
  • Ask questions and talk about the camera and its features.
  • Use the written instructions about what to do.
  • Use examples of good and poor photos showing how to improve them.

Now, there are lots of different classifications of learning styles. Some favor seven styles, while the VARK method favors just four. The process for sorting out who fits into where has been around for a while (no, it’s not a talking hat), and it has grown in popularity from kindergarten up to graduate schools. All you have to do is figure out what kind of learning style you have, and then you’re set, right?

Not really.

The Validity of Learning Styles Is Still Up For Discussion

In the study, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Harold Pashler1, Mark McDaniel2, Doug Rohrer3, Robert Bjork, the authors note the following:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education.”

Huh?

In other words, a lot of people have studied learning styles and from that research, it’s very difficult to say with any certainty that prioritizing a predetermined preferred learning style truly makes much of a difference.

So why is it even a thing?

Say Hi to Carl!

As in Carl Jung, famous psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. If you haven’t heard of Mr. Jung, don’t worry, he’s not a household name. Jung proposed that people can be characterized by their preferences of the following attitudes: extroverted or introverted, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling.

These ideas around creating types in the personality field were incorporated in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Does that test That one sound familiar? This test became wildly popular in the 1940s and is still extensively used today with no signs of slowing down.

Even one of Yale’s graduate schools has a website specifically designed to help instructors assess their students’ learning styles, their own ‘modality’ of learning, and adjust their teaching methods to accommodate those students.

There are websites upon websites and tests upon tests to help individuals, educators, and organizations determine learning styles. Would you like to pay five bucks for an assessment that will tell you how to be a better student? Maybe you’d like to do a workshop for your company to figure out how to get your employees to work together better (hint: it’s not free). See a pattern?

So do I need a learning style, and will it help me study?

Despite many studies over many years, the aforementioned paper by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork finds that there is very little evidence to support that assigning and teaching to a learning style improves learning function.

“…there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.”  

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

They’re not alone in their thinking. Others have also questioned the validity of learning styles. This study published by the British Psychological Society looked specifically at verbal vs. visual study preferences and found that regardless of what a student thought they liked better, that determination did not help them perform better on tests.

There’s also this study published in the American Association for Anatomy. They found that undergraduate anatomy students using the VARK learning styles didn’t a) study in ways that correlated to their VARK-assigned style and b) it didn’t make a difference in how well or not well they did in testing. Seeing a trend here?

A wise word from a favorite wizard

Harry: Professor, is this real, or is it all happening inside my head?

Dumbledore: Of course it’s happening inside your head Harry, but why on Earth should that mean it’s not real?

Learning style or not, we must be our own champions in how well we learn. Most recent research suggests that not only are learning styles irrelevant, but they can actually hinder you. Think about it – if some quiz determines you are a visual learner, and you spend all your time trying to absorb information that way, you are closing the door on many other avenues and methods of information.

It’s like eating PB&Js forever just because you liked them at some point. Yes, they are great, but there’s a whole world of options out there.

Bottom line: If something works for you, do it.

If you were told that you’re a visual learner and you find that visuals make learning easier for you, keep it up. Just don’t limit yourself to only visual methods.

If you don’t feel like your learning or studying habits are working, consider this your learning style ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, collect $200, and pass go. Try to vary the structure between visual intake and reading. Do you have the option to listen to a lesson? Watch a webinar instead of reading? Are there small group sessions for analysis?

To go even further, keep a log of your process and successes. Be your own scientist. You can document right down to what you ate, listened to, or even wore on a successful test or study day. If you have eaten granola before every test you’ve aced (placebo effect is real folks), get yourself to the kitchen! Find patterns in your processes when you see success. Also, seek out patterns when there is failure.

When it comes to learning, do not be defined by a category or style. Make your own choices and define your own success.