One of the more popular terms in education discussions is “learning styles.” The short version of it is that people perceive and think and learn in different ways, “meshing” with classroom content with different cognitive maps and dispositions. With a diversity of learning styles in any classroom, then, pedagogies must themselves diversify, allowing each learning style its chance to flower.
Educators apply it throughout primary, secondary, and higher education, the notion sparking changes in how people are supposed to teach, what resources schools should invest in, and how students are to be evaluated.
Like so many popular ideas in the field, however, the empirical evidence for learning styles is still weak. A study of the current scientific literature appears here in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
Authors Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork read and evaluated studies of learning styles and found, first, that “learning styles” is an amenable concept.
“Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information.”
People like to regard their mental habits as distinct, and they like to have information customized to those habits. But when examined on scientific grounds, “learning styles” didn’t hold up as well:
“We found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.”
With so little evidence for “learning styles,” the authors conclude, to make it the basis for pedagogical and curricular reform is risky and wrong-headed:
“We conclude, thereform, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.”
Return to Top