What Kind of Learning Style Best Suits You? Turns Out It’s All Nonsense

Do you prefer to learn by seeing, listening, or doing?

These are the so-called learning styles – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic – and proponents of such an approach believe that knowing your learning style can help you become a better learner.

Despite the lack of evidence to support such an approach to learning, the concept remains hugely popular, no doubt in part because learning via our preferred style can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t.

Some advocates of the learning styles approach argue that the reason for the lack of evidence to date is that students do so much of their learning outside of class. According to this view, psychologists have failed to find evidence for learning styles because they’ve focused too narrowly on whether it is beneficial to have congruence between teaching style and preferred learning style. Instead, they say psychologists should look for the beneficial effects of students studying outside of class in a manner that is consistent with their learning style.

For a new paper in Anatomical Sciences Education, a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have conducted just such an investigation with hundreds of undergrads. Once again however the findings do not support the learning styles concept, reinforcing its reputation among mainstream psychologists as little more than a myth.

The results indicated that student grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style or with any learning style(s) they scored highly on. Also, while most students (67 per cent) actually failed to study in a way consistent with their supposedly preferred learning style, those who did study in line with their dominant style did not achieve a better grade in their anatomy class than those who didn’t.

Instead, there were specific study strategies, such as practicing microscope work and using lecture notes, that were associated with better grade performance, regardless of students’ learning style.

Imagine that, basic skills like practicing and studying have a positive impact on student learning. I’ve often wondered if my advice to students that the best way to learn accounting was to practice, practice practice was unique to fields like accounting and math, where a student can just keep working on problems until they understand the concepts. Well apparently not. Maybe practice does make perfect, for all students.

The researchers concluded that the results “provide strong evidence that instructors and students should not be promoting the concept of learning styles for studying and/or for teaching interventions. Thus, the adage of ‘I can’t learn subject X because I am a visual learner’ should be put to rest once and for all.”

I’m excited to share these results with my students because I often hear that excuse, that accounting just isn’t their thing. Maybe with a little bit of practice, it can be.


2 thoughts on “What Kind of Learning Style Best Suits You? Turns Out It’s All Nonsense

  1. So the study’s findings may be “true” for undergrads in this narrow slice who are matriculated in med school/college anatomy class and already highly motivated learners (studying is their main job) , but may NOT be true for children and/or adult lifelong learners who are studying a wide variety of subjects often for personal/professional enrichment, rather than to pass a test or fulfill credits/course requirements.

    There’s a good MOOC “Learning to Learn” that emphasizes how it is “deliberate practicing” that brings about the best learning/memorization. But you can go back to your old college notebooks and see that things you “knew” then in Econ, for example, you no longer know now ( if you don’t use, you lose). Yet I still remember key concepts, such as that of “utils” because our professor presented the idea with funny examples and pictures.

    Any techniques teachers can use to make learning easier, to make students WANT to engage in “deliberate practicing” to go out and read extensively out of curiosity. Many of us Hamilton obsessed fans have gone out and learned so much more about our founding fathers and the arguments/debates they had with many parallels to today’s issues. But it is the art and music that lured us into wanting to learn more about the historical facts about those times …who was in the room where it happened…the petty jealousies that derailed history and one of its best minds (“Damn fool Arron Burr who shot him.”)
    That is not something any of my history classes incited in me.


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