“Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”
This appeared October 4, 2018 in the New York Times.
You must read this article to understand it, but many people feel reading is not how they learn best. They would rather listen to an explanation or view a diagram. Researchers have formalized those intuitions into theories of learning styles. These theories are influential enough that many states (including New York) require future teachers to know them and to know how they might be used in the classroom.
But there’s no good scientific evidence that learning styles actually exist.
Over the last several decades, researchers have proposed dozens of theories, each suggesting a scheme to categorize learners. The best known proposes that some of us like words and others like pictures, but other theories make different distinctions: whether you like to solve problems intuitively or by analyzing them, for example, or whether you prefer to tackle a complex idea with an overview or by diving into details.
If one of these theories were right, it would bring important benefits. In the classroom, a brief test would categorize children as this type of learner or that, and then a teacher could include more of this or that in their schooling. In the workplace, a manager might send one employee a memo but communicate the same information to another in a conversation.
Does such matching work? To find out, researchers must determine individuals’ supposed learning style and then ask them to learn something in a way that matches or conflicts with it. For example, in an experiment testing the visual-auditory theory, researchers determined subjects’ styles by asking about their usual mental strategies: Do you spell an unfamiliar word by sounding it out or visualizing the letters? Do you give directions in words or by drawing a map?
Next, researchers read statements, and participants rated either how easily the statement prompted a mental image (a visual learning experience) or how easy it was to pronounce (an auditory learning experience). The auditory learners should have remembered statements better if they focused on the sound rather than if they created visual images, and visual learners should have shown the opposite pattern. But they didn’t.
The theory is wrong, but, curiously, people act as though it’s right — they try to learn in accordance with what they think is their style. When experimenters asked research participants to learn a new task and gave them access to written instructions and to diagrams, the people who thought of themselves as verbalizers went for words, and the self-described visualizers looked at pictures. But tests showed they didn’t learn the task any faster because they adhered to their purported style.
In another experiment, researchers eavesdropped on brain activity to show that people will mentally change a task to align with what they think is their learning style. Researchers used stimuli that were either pictures (a blue-striped triangle) or verbal descriptions (“green,” “dotted,” “square”). While in a brain scanner, participants had to match successive stimuli, but they never knew whether a picture or words would pop up next.
When self-described visual learners saw words, the visual part of their brain was active; they were transforming the verbal stimulus into a picture. Likewise, verbal areas of the brain were active when verbal learners saw a picture; they were describing it to themselves. But again, these efforts were in vain. People performed the task no better when the stimuli matched what they thought of as their learning style.
The problem is not just that trying to learn in your style doesn’t help — it can cost you. Learning style theories ignore the fact that one mental strategy may be much better suited than another to a particular task. For example, consider the theory that differentiates intuitive and reflective thinking. The former is quick and relies on associations in memory; the latter is slower and analytic.
Whatever your purported style, intuitive thinking is better for problems demanding creativity, and reflective thinking is better for formal problems like calculations of probability. An intuitive thinker who mulishly sticks to his supposed learning style during a statistics test will fail.
Although conforming to learning styles doesn’t help, we can learn a few lessons from this research.
First, instead of trying to transform a task to match your style, transform your thinking to match the task. The best strategy for a task is the best strategy, irrespective of what you believe your learning style is.
Second, don’t let your purported style be a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or an excuse for resignation. “Sorry I mixed up the dates — I’m just not a linear thinker” is bunk. Likewise, don’t tell your child’s teacher that she is struggling in class because the teacher is not adjusting to her learning style.
Finally, the idea of tuning tasks to an individual’s style offered hope — a simple change might improve performance in school and at work. We’ve seen that that doesn’t work, but this research highlights hope of another kind. We are not constrained by our learning style. Any type of learning is open to any of us.