Do Learning Styles Really Exist?

13 April 2017 | About a 5 minute read
Tags: Academy, ANDacademy, auditory, kinesthetic, Learning, learning styles, neil fleming, process, styles, tactile, verbal, visual

What is a learning style?

A learning style identifies the way you most effectively absorb information from your environment. Neil Fleming, originator of the VARK model, argued that there are many different styles of learning. Fleming also argued that it is important to recognise and understand how you like to learn and process information – that second part is true. It is important to understand how you like to learn and process information and it is also important to understand that not everyone will process information in the same way as you do. To make a successful team it is important to provide everyone you work with the chance to process information in their own way. Evidence suggests that trying to forcefully make yourself identify with a learning style may do more harm than good

Neil Fleming’s VARK model focuses on four main different learning styles and is an expansion upon earlier notions of sensory learning styles, which are as follows:

  1. Visual/Verbal – Someone who is a Visual and Verbal learner is someone who does their best when they have the opportunity to both listen and to look at information, this type of learner likes presentations with a written outline and visual examples to back up what the presenter is verbally saying.  
  2. Visual/ Nonverbal – Someone who is a Visual and Nonverbal learner is someone who learns best through diagrams, charts, maps and graphs. These learners sometimes become frustrated with too much discussion and tend to like to stick to the facts.
  3. Auditory/Verbal – Someone who is a Auditory and Verbal learner is someone who learns best from talking through problems. When this type of learner talks through their ideas with a college, usually the outcome is a lot clearer. This person may also like to learn from verbal feedback.
  4. Tactile/Kinesthetic – Someone who is a Tactile and Kinesthetic is someone who learns best by doing. Learning on the Job is key to getting the best results out of this type of learner.

Most training sessions and teaching experiences are often built around using teaching methods that cater to suit different people’s learning styles


So…do learning styles really exist?

Although Neil Fleming’s model is a helpful to some, scientific research does not support the existence of confining individuals to one learning style. A test was done on a group of students, where each student was identified as a specific learner, the students were then asked to memorise household objects, each student was tested in their preferred learning style, and then again in the other learning styles they did not identify with. The result should have showed the students scoring a higher mark when tested in their preferred learning style, however this was not the case. The researchers found that most of the participants did not memorise the list of household objects any better in their preferred style. This experiment showed that when learning styles are put to the test under controlled conditions there is no difference in performance and the students performed equally well regardless of whether or not they learnt in their preferred style, so working in your preferred learning style won’t necessarily lead to better results. Learning is the same regardless of how the content is presented to you.


So why do a lot of people support learning styles?

In the short answer, we have fallen into the trap of believing a compelling myth, Just like many years ago people used to believe the earth was the centre of universe until Galileo proved otherwise. The idea of learning styles may sound intuitively pleasing but there is no scientific facts to back up the basics of different learning styles. Another reason why learning styles exists is the idea of it sounding good, saying that people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different and differences are important as they define who we are as humans. However, learning styles are not necessarily the way we should define differences, it sounds good but just because we want something to be true doesn’t make it so – Father Christmas and Unicorns follow the same ideals.


So… what can be done?

Most of what you learn is stored in terms of meaning and it is not tied to one particular sensory mode. Most training or what you learn in the classroom is more conceptual or meaning based. In order to retain information we have to understand and organise it in a way that is meaningful to us, we have to make connections to it and connections to our experiences and create our own examples, by doing this we will be able to retain information easier and better. Another reason why the learning styles theory doesn’t always work is because the best way to learn something depends on the content itself and depends on what you want to learn, if you don’t have an interest in a subject you will not pay as much attention to it as you would if you wanted to learn from it.


So… why does it matter?

There are at least two important reasons why we need to stop believing in learning styles, the first is that we are wasting time and resources as there is no evidence it actually helps learning, especially when there are other research activities that do actually impact learning.

The second reason is that labelling yourself or someone else can be misleading and dangerous as it can mean that the teacher or those teaching may only focus on one way and may prevent you from trying other strategies or other ways of learning that could help you learn the information better, students or those learning may give up if the teacher is testing in their preferred learning style.

Learning styles seem like an appropriate way to identify the best method of retaining information however thus far there seems to be no scientific evidence that matching teaching methods to specific learning styles has any positive effect on performance, learning is not just black and white, we all fall on a spectrum that encompasses various methods of retaining, obtaining and explaining knowledge. All of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways and we are not as limited as we sometimes think we are.

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