Learning styles – the last farewell
Learning styles of various kinds have been prevalent in education for more than twenty years. The most widely used is VAKT (Visual; Auditory; Kinaesthetic; Tactile). One of the main attractions of learning styles is that they offer a 'magic key' to unlock the mysteries of each individual's learning, thus allowing teachers to use the matching teaching style so that everybody in the class can learn.
Learning styles theories are now largely discredited, mainly because of the lack of any empirical evidence to support them but also because of the dangers of labelling students as specific ‘types’ of learners.
A comprehensive review of learning styles* identified 71 different models and evaluated their effectiveness. It concluded that in nearly all cases learning style methodologies had limited or no effect and, further, there was very little evidence to support their effectiveness. VAKT has attracted the most criticism because there is no theory or scientific justification which provides evidence of the existence of these ‘styles’ of learning or any implications for planning teaching and learning.
As well as the lack of evidence to support learning styles theories there is also the danger of labelling students as having a personal, predominant learning style which teachers must cater for. It now seems clear that identifying students as having a preferred learning style is likely to limit rather than to enhance their learning.
Learning styles were originally seen as part of the ‘brain-based’ learning movement along with other activities such as ‘brain gyms’. The claims for the success of these methods were frequently based on evidence from neuroscience. The rapid growth and development of neuroscience shows that we should now regard learning styles as a ‘neuromyth’. Other neuromyths include the beliefs that we only use twenty percent of our brains, or that people have a left-brain or right-brain dominance.
Evidence from neuroscience challenges the learning styles theorists’ claims that we receive information through a particular ‘sensory modality’ and is then stored in the same way. So, for example, the belief that things leaned kinaesthetically are stored in a ‘kinaesthetic’ part of the brain and that things learned visually are stored ‘visually’
Should we abandon learning styles?
The balance of evidence suggests that we should. The most valuable message from the learning styles debate is that people learn in many different ways. Teachers should have a wide, and continually developing, range of techniques to draw on for long and short- term planning.
Teachers are busy enough without having to administer and analyse learning styles questionnaires. It is more appropriate to rely on the professional expertise of teachers to understand their learners and discover the best ways to help them learn rather use ‘solutions’ which have the appearance of scientific rigour but are of dubious value.
*Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) Should we be using learning styles? Norwich: Learning and Skills Research Centre
Pete Scales, now retired, was a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Derby and also delivered PGC HE programmes to teaching colleagues. His book An Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Supporting Fellowship’ was published by Open University Press in 2017. Prior to this he taught in further education for over twenty years and ran teacher education programmes. His book Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector (Open University Press) is now in its second edition. He still maintains his lifelong learning website at www.peter-scales.org.uk