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
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.
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.
Newton, P. M., & Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-based higher education–is the learning styles ‘myth’important?. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 444.
Oxford, R. 2003. Teaching & Researching: Learning styles and strategies. Oxford: Gala.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 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.
Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox
I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!