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Browsing the internet or any nearby book shop will tell you that learning styles are all the rage and have been for over a decade now. After having talked with many teachers and learners, and after reading many books and websites about language learning, I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable about the whole affair. I don’t like the way learning styles are handled by a majority of people I’ve met or whose books I’ve read.

Most of their knowledge comes from lightweight books with titles designed to generate sales rather than inform the reader about the content. In this article, I will present my take on learning styles. In short, I think that they are important, but not in the way you might think. Their role is generally overrated, but they still have something to offer.

What is a learning style?

Before we go into details about learning styles, I should say a few words to define the term. Learning style refers to the way in which an individual learner prefers to acquire, retain and retrieve information. For example, some learners prefer to have graphical representations of what they’re learning, whereas others need to try themselves before they understand. This is different from language learning strategies, which are more about techniques the learner uses to enhance his or her own learning.

The common approach

The common approach to learning styles goes something like this. There are three different ways of learning: visual, auditory and tactile. By adjusting the teaching method (or learning method if you’re teaching yourself) to your particular learning style, you can supposedly increase the rate of learning. The fact that some students fail tests and receive low grades is commonly attributed to a mismatch between teaching method and learning style.

…and why it’s deeply flawed

This approach has two major problems which I’m going to discuss one at a time.

  • It’s not based on scientific evidence
  • It’s too simple and risks being misinterpreted

Image credit: Jens Langner

The existence of learning styles is not an accepted scientific truth

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people writing about learning styles: researchers, educators and entrepreneurs (a combination is of course also possible). The problem is that once the second and third groups get going, they reinforce each other, giving the general public the feeling that what they say is true simply because they have now written so many books about it (mostly referring to each other). Even legislators seem to have jumped on the bandwagon.

The problem is that research into learning styles tells us something completely different. It’s difficult for an outsider to form a clear picture of a broad research field, but one thing is very clear: research into learning styles is very far from clear-cut. Some show a positive impact on learning from method-style matching, some report negative results of trying to match teaching methods to learning styles! Most reports I’ve read simply finds no correlation at all. There is also a lack of rigorous studies on diverse populations (most test subjects are typically university students).

From a neuroscientific perspective, the human brain isn’t “visual” or “auditory”. Former head of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Susan Greenfield, has stated that:

Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together [...] that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart. (The Telegraph)

She also calls learning styles “nonsense” and “a waste of valuable time and resources”.

Sorting people according to learning styles is a dangerous simplification

Reading popular literature about learning styles, I get the impression that there are three different kinds of people in the world: visual, auditory, tactile learners. The goal is to figure out which of the three categories you belong to. Then, if you adjust your learning based on the results, success awaits just around the corner. This also gives people something to blame for bad results in school and tallies well with what is considered to be politically correct. It also looks like an excuse to be complacent or lazy (the reason I don’t learn anything in class is because my teacher is bad and can’t cater to my personal learning style).

There are several problems with this approach:

  • Serious literature about learning styles typically talks about dimensions of learning, i.e. that a learner’s ability to acquire, retain and retrieve information can measured on a number of different scales, such as “visual learning”, “inductive learning” or “top-down learning”. Think of it as stats for a computer game character; there is nothing that says that you belong to only one category.
  • Sorting yourself into a category, you risk limiting yourself instead of freeing yourself. Just because other “tactile learners” prefer a certain method, there is scant reason to think that you will as well. The opposite is of course also true, just because other “visual learners” hate a method doesn’t mean you will. Sorting yourself into a category and then using this to determine what’s good for you is a very bad idea.

Are learning styles meaningless, then?

No, I don’t think so. The requirements for proving that something is scientifically sound is not necessarily the same as the criteria for judging if something is useful for you as an individual. Proving that something is useful in general is tricky, showing that it works for you is easier.

Also, using many different methods might be beneficial in itself, because multimodal learning works better than methods that single out one sense. In addition, individual language learners don’t necessarily need to know why something works (it might be placebo!), just that it works.

Conclusion

Even though I think it’s highly doubtful that learning styles are as important as some writers and educators claim, I don’t think the concept is useless. On the whole, though, I think it does more harm than good, because it risks locking people into stereotypes and limit their learning environment, when in fact they should broaden it. Experimenting with different ways of learning is excellent, using language styles to avoid responsibility and remain passive is not.

References and further reading

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Felder, R. M. and Henriques, E. R.. 1995. “Learning and teaching styles in foreign and second language education”. Foreign Language Annals, 28(1), 1995, pp. 21-31.

Oxford, R. 2003. Teaching & Researching: Learning styles and strategies. Oxford: Gala.

Pashler H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9 (3), pp. 105–119.

Reiff, J. 1992. “What research says to the teacher: Learning styles.” Washington, DC: National  Education Association. Foreign Language Annals, 28(1), 1995, pp. 21±31. http://www.ncsu.edu/effective_teaching/Papers/FLAnnals.pdf.


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12 Responses to Learning styles: Use with caution!

  1. I have never thought about it this way.

    I have however found that there is a strong correlation between practicing and learning and also between not practicing and not learning. If one learning style in itself can make me practice on a regular basis, I would probably like that learning style more. Measuring what makes me practice more is also a bit tricky unfortunately. :)

    • Sara K. says:

      Strongly agree.

      I have found that certain techniques are, in a narrow sense, extremely effective, but kill my motivation, which means I practice less. Thus, in the long run, I had to abandon them in favor of technically less effective-per-minute techniques which don’t kill my motivation.

      • Olle Linge says:

        Yes, I agree with both of you. However, I don’t think that most people who advocate the benefits of learning styles do so for the sole reason that students might enjoy one style over another and therefore invest more time. This is kind of obvious and the reason why I always encourage people to experiment as much as possible. I hope you didn’t perceive my article as arguing against this. I turn against the sorting of learners into specific, non-scientific categories, not the process of trying to figure out what you like best and is therefore prepared to spend the most time doing. Again, diversity is in itself a goal here and I feel that focusing too much on finding your learning style will lead you to less diversity in the end, not more.

        • Sara K. says:

          I didn’t mean to disagree with you (I also agree with the article itself), I just wanted to strongly agree that motivation is very important.

          Actually, the tactile/auditory/visual learning styles thing never made much sense to me. I tried taking some of the tests which would determine my ‘style’, and the results were all over the map. Furthermore, these ‘styles’ didn’t seem to describe anybody I knew well. So I’ve been ignoring this ‘styles’ thing for a long time.

          • Olle Linge says:

            This is more or less the same experience that I have. I didn’t think you disagree, I just wanted to clarify my own standpoint in case someone read the comments and misunderstood the tone in the original article. :)

  2. nanpyn says:

    In contrast, Multiple Intelligences teach us:

    Everyone has all the intelligences.
    You can strengthen each intelligence.
    This inventory is meant as a snapshot in time – it can change.
    MI is meant to empower, not label learners.

    (http://surfaquarium.com/MI/inventory.htm)

    Anyway, we appreciate the diversity of learning and teaching. As a result, teachers may become busy giving learners the multi-layer or multi-level activities that make all different learners happy and very busy. XD

    The following is merely my personal reflections, so I switch the code.

    尤其是如果學習者是兒童或青少年,教師要為每週數次、每天數小時的課程想出各式各樣的活動真是一大挑戰!(如果教師群共同備課可能比較有效率)為成人設計的活動則在精不在多,對象不同,教起來也大不同。(就先前經驗而言,由於缺乏教育學相關背景,導致我教兒童或青少年的方式實在拙劣,深自反省真是誤人子弟啊,以後得改進。)

    想盡辦法讓學習者忙碌一點(因材施教、人盡其才),教師就能輕鬆一點,就會都很有成就感,哈。

    • Olle Linge says:

      To be honest, I’m not a big fan of multiple intelligences either. It feels way too much like a political agenda that wants to make everybody equally intelligent and therefore renames everything we previously called “ability” to “intelligence”. However, as is the case with learning styles, it is important to realise that there are many different ways of doing things and that different things will work for different people at different times. Thus, I think diversity in itself is a goal. MI might highlight this, but that’s about the only part of the theory that I like.

      • nanpyn says:

        So, you mean multiple intelligences are just being politically correct? Hmm, yes, indeed. I see. “However, as is the case with learning styles, it is important to realise that there are many different ways of doing things and that different things will work for different people at different times.” Wow, it’s a very “different” tongue twister! XD 換句話說就是人別「畫地自限」,哈。

        • Olle Linge says:

          More or less. I think MI is a clever way of taking something which normal people just call “ability” and relabel it as “intelligence”. The language we use to describe things is of course important and might in some cases be very powerful. For instance, in this case it tells people “you are intelligent too”, even if they aren’t in the traditional definition of intelligence.

          Although I recognise the value of that and think that different kinds of abilities should be recognised as important, I don’t think that this is a scientific endeavour. That’s why I said that it’s political rather than scientific. The lack of empirical evidence further puts the theory into the non-scientific category. This alo reflected by the massive criticism against MI from the scientific community. Wikipedia has a pretty good summary if you’re interested.

  3. miren says:

    If I understand you the great educator Howard Gardner is wrong and Karl Jung too.I am an educator and I use learning styles in my classroom and I think you do not seem to understand the theories based on Multiple intelligences and Learning styles. You also seem to be ignorant about neurosciences ( my husband is neuroscientist and we have different ways of learning, he laughed at the picture that you posted about the brain). Sorry but you seem to be ignorant about education and research about Howard Gardner’s learning styles and multiples intelligences. Some people learn by acting, reading, writing etc.. We have different learning styles and you say: no? I am very visual when I learn and if I do not see the words I CANNOT LEARN. Your blog is very ignorant about Howard Gardner’s’ theories. Do not discredit this great researcher.

    • Olle Linge says:

      It seems like you treat Gardner as a deity rather than a scientist; it would be interesting if you could provide something more concrete. It is in the nature of the scientific process to criticise what other people have published if there is reason to do so (and there is, see Greenfield’s quote for instance). I did quite a lot of reading before writing this article and there seems to be a lot of “common sense” and pseudo-science supporting the ideas behind learning styles, but very little hard science. And for the record, since this isn’t a blog about neuroscience, the picture wasn’t meant to depict brain activity related to various ways of learning, it was only a desperate attempt to make the article less dense and more pleasant to the eye. :)

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