Learning Styles: A Myth That Won’t Go Away


“What I hear, I forget; What I see, I remember; What I do, I understand.” – Attributed to Confucius

I’ve seen this quote displayed prominently in classrooms, used in books, mentioned in videos, and repeated by educators at professional development meetings. What is it supposed to convey anyway? Was the ancient thinker’s intention to express that seeing is a better way of absorbing freshly received information, and that doing something with it is even more powerful when it comes to internalizing it? Whatever the intended meaning, I believe that all of these, and other, ways of learning are important. Moreover, educational research suggests that we learn best in a multitude of ways, rather than by any one dominant means; and that different subjects lend themselves to different methods of delivery for maximized learning effectiveness, regardless of how pupils taking the subject prefer to learn.

Life is multimodal and so is learning. No single learning modality can be used effectively on a consistent basis. The ever-popular learning styles inventories and assessments are continually being used in the K-12 and higher education communities, even as they are repeatedly being proven inaccurate. The idea that each person has a preferred learning modality is not supported by evidence and is poorly correlated with achievement.

So why does this myth persist in the educational circles?

Learning Styles Schemes Industry

Fortunes have been made selling learning styles assessments, publications, trainings, and other materials and services to educational institutions. For example, the International Learning Styles Network (ILSN), which runs the learningstyles.net website claims that for the past 30+ years their organization “has been helping both children and adults reach their full learning potential.” This “achievement of full potential” costs $5 per pupil and can be attained for individuals aged 7 through adult. There are many other businesses such as this one that offer the convenience of a 30-minute or so assessment that once completed is the “holy grail of how one learns.”

Like ILSN, many other firms claim that their learning styles scheme is supported by research, and make convincing sells pitches to institutions and individuals passionate about helping their students and employees maximize their learning outcomes. But upon closer examination, and using objective research methods, rather than methods driven by financial motives, there is a growing body of evidence that shows no credible educational benefits that rise out of using learning styles inventories. Translation: LEARNING STYLES MATERIALS AND SERVICES ARE A WASTE OF MONEY THAT CAN BE ALLOCATED ELSEWHERE.

Educators Want to Help Students Learn

It is after all, our job as educators to teach our students. If we are misguided, it is often because we care. Personally, I remember the talk of learning styles from very early on in my teaching career. I attended professional development workshops, read the literature, and even administered a learning styles assessment to my advisory students once. I did it in good faith. I was asked to do it by the administration (the perceived experts) and I wanted my students to have an extra tool in their success bag.

And if we take an honest look, I think we will find a similar approach in any educational institution – administrators working hard to equip their teachers with the best tools for the most important job we all share – the job of educating our students. If it makes sense at the time, we’ll do it. Well… IT NO LONGER MAKES SENSE TO USE THE LEARNING STYLES INVENTORIES TO HELP STUDENTS LEARN, BECAUSE THEY DON’T.

Learners Have Personal Preferences

Surprise. Surprise. Individuals are unique. Students have a preferred way of receiving information and different aptitudes for specific ways of learning. If given the opportunity (or an assessment), the pupil will identify himself or herself as auditory, visual, or tactile. Earlier this year, a student who struggles in chemistry told me, that she is “visual” and that is why the subject is “hard” for her. It is possible then, that even more students claim to be a certain type of learner to rationalize to themselves and others their lack of comprehension, motivation, or success.

However, there is simply no evidence that ties learning preferences and styles to academic performance. Most of the studies that claim this correlation are not substantiated with valid experimental techniques. OTHER RESEARCH, UNDERTAKEN USING APPROPRIATE METHODOLOGIES, FLAT OUT CONTRADICTS THE MAINSTREAM THINKING ON THIS SUBJECT, AS THE RESULTS SHOW LITTLE OR NO LEARNING IMPROVEMENT WHEN THE INSTRUCTION IS TAILORED TO THE LEARNING STYLE.

Now What?

In their study of learning styles effects, Pashler et al. (2008) concluded that “the contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is striking and disturbing” (p. 117).

  1. So, let’s stop wasting time, money, and other resources on learning styles products/services. They are not helpful to student success.
  2. Let’s stop misleading students by telling them that they learn the most when they use their preferred learning style.
  3. Humans are multi-modal and students are humans, so let’s do what we have always done and present content in a multitude of ways. Let’s read, write, talk, listen, show, visualize, perform, collaborate etc. in our classrooms whenever possible.
  4. Some subjects are taught best using a dominant modality, so if it “just makes sense,” we should do it that way.
  5. Bottom line: all students can learn in any modality, regardless of their preferred or assessed learning style, so let’s teach them and encourage them to learn just as we’ve always done.

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Pashler, Harold, McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9.3 103-119.

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.

Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis, Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), pp. 238-246.




Oskar, I have long been fascinated by this topic and have even done a couple of radio shows with others insisting that learning styles are a myth. Still, I have difficult buying into that idea wholeheartedly because what I experience physically, I absolutely recall better than anything I’ve read or heard. And when it comes to the latter two senses, I’m always going to have greater comprehension via my eyes than my ears. (My ex, on the other hand, was able to listen to something being read and grasp it without problem, while my mind wanders in a million different directions when trying to focus on something auditory.)

I do agree, however, that humans are multimodal. And there is research demonstrating that the more senses used in the learning process, the greater the percentage of retention.

Oh, and by the way, I use that Confucius quote in my presentations to make a point about active learning. 🙂

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