Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say

Are you a verbal learner or a visual learner? Chances are, you’ve pegged yourself or your children as either one or the other and rely on study techniques that suit your individual learning needs. And you’re not alone— for more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence on education. The long-standing popularity of the learning styles movement has in turn created a thriving commercial market amongst researchers, educators, and the general public.

The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

Unfortunately, the answer is no, according to a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning—Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles)—reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs  that would make their findings credible.

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design.  Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

Comments

Could you please direct me to the source material for this? Thank you.

I doubt a valid study could be created. There are too many variables. I expect we learn by a combination of all inputs. How could a study overcome the issues of quality of the teachers’ presentation, quality of visuals used compared to quality of auditory materials?

Larry, speaking as a statistics student, I’ll propose an answer to the issue of how a “valid study” can be designed. Feel free to call me out if there is an inherent flaw with my proposal.

I will be referring to American students specifically since this is an issue debated for the American school system. I assume the author is talking about the same thing, but I’ll admit I don’t know if this teaching idea is prevalent in other countries. For the sake of this argument, it really doesn’t matter anyways as this variable is easily changed.

The sample is the most difficult part here, I expect there to be a lot of chosen students who’s parents do not wish their children to be a part of the study for some reason or another. It would also have to be conducted locally, or over a short period of time, though doing it locally would have a greater chance of acceptance among chosen participants. The greatest effort should be made to account for demographics, but, again, this would be difficult.
(^Not a great way to start, apologies, but I’m sure a seasoned statistician could come up with the solution that I’m afraid I can’t)

Now, you have your grouping of students, say 1,500 for a reasonable number that would provide relatively a relatively small margin of error. Split each of these students into groups of 500, and assign them to a 25 student-per-teacher classroom that each taught only through auditory, visual, or “hands-on” learning. The students are specifically instructed not to take notes. For this example, let’s say they are learning the properties of liquids. The visual classes are taught through packets that each student is given. The “hands-on” class is given a sheet instructing them how to perform a lab and giving them blanks to fill in. Obviously, for this one, a teacher will tell them how to properly handle equipment and said equipment will be protected against the children hurting themselves inadvertently.(ie, no bunsen burners, but maybe a low-heat burner with students only able to turn it on/off and not touch the hot surface) The hearing group will be given a lecture on the subject, with questions being allowed afterward. After a few days learning this way, every student in every class would be given the same test. Then they would all switch, this time learning about the properties of a solid through the same methods, before being tested on it. Lastly, they would switch to learning and testing on the properties of a gas. As a control, through the same selection process, 500 students could be selected to be taught using all three of the described methods in the same timeframe. That is, instead of a packet, a lecture, or a lab, they could receive a lecture while being shown a powerpoint, followed by a lab.

To prevent previous learning bias, I would suggest all students in the sampling population be the same age, while having not received formal education prior. Also, every student should be taught to use the equipment before the experiment so that the “hands-on” group wouldn’t be at an initial disadvantage.

I’m not a teacher, a psychologist, or a professional statistician. This is just my proposal using my current knowledge of statistics. Take it with a grain of salt and form your own opinions, this is simply being put forth in the effort to show that such an experiment seems to be viable given the proper infrastructure and coordination.

What a bunch of arrogant people to think that they know if there exists one learning style…!? The only learning style we know is the one in our head. How can you say that there is no other creative ways of learning? What about Autistic people? What about Blind people? What about Deaf people? And Bipolar people? And what about Dyslexic people? And people who have a part of verbal speech comprehensions damages in their brain???? Why give so much importance to a little psychology paper? Any body can do a 3 year psychology degree and then write a paper claiming blabla bla

That’s not what they’re saying at all. They’re saying that there are no categories, or boxes, that people can be put in based on their learning style. They’re not saying there is just one way to learn. No need to get so worked up. People with damage to specific parts of their brains or sensory organs are obviously the outlier. Obviously they are going to be radically different.

And publishing a paper in an esteemed journal takes a _little_ bit more than a 3 year BSc in psychology. It’s that comment that really reveales the depth of your ignorance.

I hope that we can finally move past these always dubious “sensory” learning styles. They’re really “modes,” different ways of learning. I’ve long argued that anyone who feels weak at using any of them needs to practice using that mode more, not less. But another old branch of learning styles based on differing neurotransmitter biases seemed to have better prospects, even if I’ve seen little done with it for decades now. I hope we don’t toss out the entire learning style baby with the dirty “sensory style” bathwater. With our updated technology, we could probably go much farther with it. For background, see dated and rather poorly written but better reasoned explanatory work by Jane Gear.

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