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.

As someone diagnosed with high-functioning autism and currently in a concurrent education course, it is much more dangerous to tell someone they should be okay with only learning in one way rather than teaching them to be flexible and learn to absorb information from all sorts of mediums. So I’m gonna assume you’re blind, dyslexic, and autistic because you’ve assumed you can speak for all of them, yes? Your example of someone being blind also helps to further disprove learning theory — which implies nature over nurture — because clearly the ‘visual’ learners who are rendered blind must learn to learn in a different way (which statistically is shown to affect their learning no differently).

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.

Allow me to state categorically that there are learning styles of which to speak specific to learners. To get the issue on hand, the methods proposed by these researchers as a way to disregard the widespread validity or to invalidate the validity of learning proclivities as a concept is not only inapposite, but also akin to saying that every learner approaches the universe of learning in the exact same way. If that is the measure of what we are to agree on as what constitutes scientific efficacy on any issue, then all forms of research are mitigatable and a suspect in the sense of their nature, methods, outcomes, and overall usefulness.

Such a view to research pieces is clearly misguided, ill-informed and half-scientific … even from a commonsense perspective. It serves no social and scientific utility, but for the interest of the investigators.

Mind you, we are not referring to the efficacy of styles presumptive of or correlative to bettering grade acquisition; rather that it should be argued that there are humane, less torturous, comfortable, less arduous and even naturalistic way of teaching students by emphasizing their uniquely preferred styles, wherever determinable.

Even where indeterminable, instructors are to be encouraged to vary their teaching methods to accommodate the learning needs of their captive audience, in this case, their students, and especially not to think that students learn essentially in the very same way as, for example, their instructors.

To think that all learners learn the same way whether in styles or approaches and to even suppose that instruction is a form of a “straight-jacket” and should work with all “body sizes” is in itself a form of miseducation, misrepresentation and,or a type of stiff recalcitrance that should not ever conduce to the mind of an educator, much less a group of psychologists.

Conbach and Snow’s [in the 60’s] work on learning differences, along with findings affecting Trait/Factor analysis are some of few materials that may well serve as enviable pivots for the current exchange.

When it comes to research concerning learning styles…the human dynamics of learning is so complex that attempting to isolate independent variables that may affect learning is like trying to determine the direction of an automobile by studying petroleum chemistry.

The big problem of understanding this is that people don’t focus on the clear and precise language being used, and don’t understand how experimental science works.

What is being said is that “learning styles” theories which denote specific “auditory” and “visual” learning styles do not have any scientific evidence for them. Those who are evaluated to be predominantly “auditory” in terms of a “learning style” do not in fact perform better or differently when taught “visually” and vice versa.

This is important, because while it seems intuitively true that some people might learn better with a specific medium, there is no evidence for it. What there is evidence for is the superiority of multi-modal or multi-media instruction, in terms of learning outcomes.

The main point is don’t waste time on something that has no evidence to support it. See a ranking of effect size on educational reforms to see what is most important, and what is least: https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

I am currently studying to be an ESL teacher and have come across these “learning styles” with in the course. I do have a rather concerning view about them.

I can see that many minds are put behind how we are going to teach and get the “message” across to learners, but sadly i feel like there is an overdose of ego on “who has the better way to teach”. I know that’s a pretty heavy assumption but i can’t conclude much else except maybe there is a fear that the future generation may not learn correctly, which if this is the case, this manifests into over thinking techniques and deviding the way how individuals learn. I do however believe that segregating ways in which people learn is crazy and an over analysed attempt.

As i was studying this i couldn’t help but scrunch my nose in confusion when alot of the individual “learning styles” were something that i have as a “whole” and as an “individual”. I strongly believe that everything works hand in hand.

If i was to simply hold up a picture of someone playing golf and not attach a word or action to it, they would simply know what it looks like but not know what to call it or how it works. Auditory and kinaesthetic would be eliminated and the student will be deprived. But what concerns me is, that i would be compelled to put action to something like this(in a teachers mind) and tell them what we call it (golf). So to be segregating “learning styles” you must be going against a law within your conscience as to how we ALL “learn” this seriously is a no brainer for me.

I must say though not everything is based on science, simply using your brain can solve many of complications. I say that encouragingly not as a rivalry. Hope this was helpful.

Phil

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