Learning styles refer to a range of competing and contested theories that people can be classified according to their style of learning. The theories suggest that there is some set of biologically or developmentally imposed set of characteristics that can account for differences in individuals’ learning. An enormous amount has been written about learning styles, including thousands of academic papers. A review by identified 71 different models for learning styles. Daniel Willingham DW Daniel Willingham puts the style models into two main groups :
- Preferences for processing certain types of information (e.g. visual, auditory)
- Preferences for processing information in certain ways (e.g. analytic, intuitive)
The most widely known models are probably those based on learning modalities such as visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), and tactile (touching), kinesthetic (moving) styles.
Central to most learning style models is a meshing hypothesis . Learning is believed to be more effective if material is presented to the learner in a way that matches his or her learning style. Based on this hypothesis, learners should strive to learn according to their style and educators should tailor their material to the styles of their students.
Learning styles are popular among both learners and educators. When asked about learning styles, learners are usually able to identify a preference. 93-97% of surveyed teachers in five countries — the UK, the Netherlands, China, Turkey, and Greece — thought that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.
It seems that the idea of finding out “what type of person one is” has some eternal and deep appeal.
— and co-authors, Psychological Science in the Public Interest
Despite the vast literature on learning styles, reviewers have not been able to identify compelling evidence supporting their use to enhance learning. Serious flaws have been identified in many of the most popular models. The proliferation of different learning style models itself is a challenge. The validity and reliability of learning style assessments, which usually rely on self-reporting, have been questioned. Most importantly, the research has failed to reliably demonstrate any significant improvement in learning when people are instructed in their preferred style over people with a different style. Harold Pashler HP Harold Pashler and co-authors called the use of learning styles in education unwise and wasteful .
Several reviews that span decades have evaluated the literature on learning styles and each has drawn the conclusion that there is no viable evidence to support the theory.
— Daniel Willingham DW Daniel Willingham , Teaching of Psychology
Individuals do have specific learning needs, and adapting learning to those needs makes sense. However, the available evidence indicates that people don’t learn better when they learn according to a specific learning style. They may be doing themselves a disservice by doing so. Focussing on one particular learning style plays to a person’s strengths, which may lead to a misleading sense of fluency . It does nothing to address weaknesses, which are likely the areas that need the most attention. Certain topics lend themselves to different learning modalities (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic). The modality should be appropriate to the content rather than the learner’s preferences. Learners can introduce variation into their learning by mixing different learning styles and are thus likely to learn more effectively than when trying to stick to a specific style.