Are Learning Styles BS?

The Truth About Learning Styles

Are they really the key to unlock student learning? Or are they just BS?

The belief that students use a variety of learning styles is firmly ingrained in the hearts and minds of teachers and professors. And yet, recently this cherished belief has come under fire.

Despite all the anecdotal information acquired by teachers everywhere, researchers have failed to discover definite evidence that different students have different needs for learning information.

This is not for lack of trying. In one experiment, researchers showed students a picture, then gave them something to read or to listen to, and tested what they remembered. This seemed like a good way to determine whether different learning preferences and styles were really a factor in what students are able to retain.

But the results were not what researchers expected. Students who were shown a picture performed better than the others regardless of the type of learning style they self-reported (visual, verbal, auditory, and so on). In other words, people seemed to remember pictures better than words, regardless of what they thought they would remember better.

Based on this and other similar studies, many claim that the learning style hypothesis has been discredited.

But has it?

Digging Deeper

A closer look will reveal that the issue of learning styles is more complex than we have previously assumed.

Learning styles are usually “determined” from a questionnaire in which students are usually asked what kind of learning activity they prefer. As an example, when trying to locate a destination, some will express a preference for maps, while others prefer reading written directions.

But just because a student prefers a particular learning activity does not mean those strategies are most effective for them. We may prefer taking a pill to getting a shot (jab), but the shot may be a more effective way of getting the medicine where it’s needed.

Another consideration is that there is more to learning than just memory. In fact, the “cognitive process dimension” includes six distinct learning tasks (Anderson, 2001— see the reference to “Bloom’s revised taxonomy” on our bibliography page). In experiments like the one described above (and many others), memory is usually the only task which is assessed. We have no idea of the effect of different “information formats” on other equally essential learning tasks such as understanding, applying, and evaluating. Furthermore, learning style models usually have more than just visual vs. verbal differentiators (text and auditory are now both thought to use the same brain processes, and are grouped together under “verbal.”

Therefore, we cannot say with certainty that the learning style hypothesis has been debunked.

The Learning Style Experience

With the Learning Style Experience on this site, we aim to determine learning style through a far more comprehensive process. The user engages in a number of games and challenges which measure learning style across three of the four axes of the Felder-Silverman learning style model:

  • Active vs. reflective
  • Visual vs. verbal
  • Global vs. sequential

The only axis missing is the sensing/intuitive axis.

In addition, the Learning Style Experience measures across five of the six learning cognitive processes in the Bloom Revised Taxonomy (excluding only the “create” stage).

This experience is completely free and anonymous. You will be randomly assigned a user ID (UUID). While there is advertising to fund the page, thus introducing some privacy caveats, we ourselves do not track anything. In fact, if you want to retain your results you should print-as-pdf or screencap them. We will certainly, without remorse, nuke the database from time to time. In fact, we already have.

Why Should Students Care About Learning Styles?

In the past, discussions about learning styles have generally focused on teachers. Researchers directed their efforts to helping instructors present material so that students with different learning styles can understand it more effectively.

For example, the VARK model (like many others) directs teachers to use all of the senses, in order to appeal to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. If it were possible to smell an algebraic equation, then undoubtedly professors would be asked to appeal to that sense in their instruction, too.

Understandably, this approach can be exhausting for teachers and professors. And when faced with the lack of real evidence that it matters, they might well disregard learning style models completely. Not to mention the fact that in college instructors don’t employ teaching strategies like differentiated instruction to the extent that teachers do in K-12.

But at Study Swami, our focus is not on instructors, but on the students; in other words, you! We want to make sure students like you have the tools they need to put the information they receive into the format that works best for them. Imagine how freeing that could be. Students no longer have to depend on the kindness of instructors who in some cases might not even care enough or have the time to try to make the information accessible for all. It empowers you, the student, to take charge of your own learning in any situation. As a bonus, learning this skill now will make you more valuable throughout your career. You’re welcome.

The Felder-Silverman model (first developed in the 1980s and revised since) is fantastic for thinking about the learning process not from what an instructor should do but from what the student can do to learn faster and deeper. That’s exactly why we’ve adopted that model as our foundation here at Study Swami.

Ready to see for yourself?

Do you have the intellectual curiosity to try out this exciting new approach? If so, then you already have one of the most important ingredients for college success. You can check out the Learning Style Experience right here.