If Learning Styles Are a Myth, What Do We Do Instead?

child's hands using red math manipulitives | learning style myth

We are proud to share this guest post by Mary Field, Academic Director at the International School of San Antonio, about why learning styles are a myth and suggesting better strategies for helping students.

Completing a quiz to discover my learning style quickly became a first-day-of-school ritual. An idea that had its roots in the 70s took off and ripped like wild-fire through my 90s-era education. The idea was simple: find out each student’s learning style, tailor the lessons to those learning styles, and the students will learn better. Our enthusiastic teachers in English, biology, social studies, etc. dutifully photocopied these quizzes at the beginning of the school year and we the students completed them. Much to the delight of many of my classmates, this exercise took up at least fifteen minutes of class time. It was fifteen minutes we didn’t have to pretend to have read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or remember the quadratic equation.

Over the decades, educators and researchers have identified at least 70 different learning styles. The VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) or VARK (visual, auditory, reading-writing, kinesthetic) models were the most common in my own education, but there are certainly others.

It seemed like the teachers of my K–12 years had an extra tool in the box to help us learn our subjects. There was just one problem. Learning styles are a myth.

Learning Styles Are a Myth

Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, explains that for the learning styles theory to be correct, a “visual learner” would have to be able to complete a task better than a non-visual learner when the stimuli are pictures. This is not the case. There is evidence that people do have preferences about how they receive information, but research has found that there is no interaction between these preferences and what is actually learned.

During my research for this article, I came across another piece from Willingham in which he states plainly that he is “sick of writing about” the myth of learning styles. So how is it after decades of debunking by Willingham, et al., a majority of states have learning styles on their teacher-licensure exams and a huge percentage of teachers still believe they should tailor their teaching to a student’s learning style?

Perhaps the myth of learning styles has stuck around because teachers don’t read cognitive science journals. I’m sympathetic to that idea, since academic journals are famously expensive and teachers are often stuck paying for such basics as glue sticks and hand sanitizer. There is something deeper going on here, however.

Maya Angelou is correct; we remember most how people make us feel. My 9th grade biology teacher, devotee of learning styles, made me feel like she really cared about what I learned. I most definitely do not remember what the Golgi apparatus does. I do know, however, that quizzes about learning styles had all the validity of the quizzes I was taking over the weekend from Seventeen magazine about which hairstyle was best for my personality. My teacher was handing out hokum, but doing so in good faith.

Effective Teaching for All Learners

Orienting lessons around learning styles is a proxy for teacher conscientiousness. Parents also use this faulty framework to advocate for their children. Many parents tell me that their child is certainly a “kinesthetic learner.” It is these good intentions that make the learning styles theory so appealing and explain why it has stuck around so long. So if we shouldn’t spend time tailoring our lesson plans to learning styles, what should we do instead?

We should focus on building relationships. We know that a strong teacher-student relationship is important to student success. One parent at our school remarked once that at her child’s previous school, “it felt like they didn’t really know her.” Getting to know our students is an integral part of building strong teacher-student relationships. Small class sizes likely help, especially in the early grades. Lots of stimulating interactions throughout the day are also a hallmark of good teacher-student relationships for young students. It is a slow, incremental process that takes time and attention. Any theory that promises to be a “quick fix,” probably isn’t.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Mary Field speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on October 4, 2021 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Mary Field is the head of academics at the International School of San Antonio. She has taught Mandarin Chinese in San Antonio since 2015.

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