Learning Styles: Worth the Cost?

David Douglass, Ph.D.

Many people believe there are individual differences in “learning styles.”
Definitions of learning styles tend to be vague—sometimes very lengthy but still vague.
For example: “Learning style is the way in which each learner begins to concentrate on,
process, absorb, and retain new and difficult information . . .” (www.learningstyles.net).

Typically, educators and students assume that matching a method of instruction
to a students’ learning style will increase learning and retention of information.
For instance, a student who is a “visual learner” should do better when new ideas
are presented visually.

In November of 2009, a team of distinguished scientists published a comprehensive review
of the articles, books, and other publications related to learning styles. I’m referring to
Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer & Robert Bjork's
Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

What the experts say

Some of their findings and conclusions:

“[T]he learning-styles concept appears to have wide acceptance not only among educators but also
among parents and the general public. . . . the learning-styles idea is actively promoted by vendors offering
many different tests, assessment devices, and online technologies . . . Some of the most popular [are] the
Dunn and Dunn learning-styles model, Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, and Honey and Mumford’s
Learning Styles Questionnaire.” (10)

Okay, the idea is popular but . . .
“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and
the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of
students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” (42)

The claim is that matching methods of instruction to learning styles should improve
student performance. In other words, teaching students in the manner they prefer
should help them to learn and to retain what they learn. The way to test this claim is
straightforward:
1. Give students a test designed to identify each individual’s learning style.
2. For half of these students use a method of instruction that matches their style;
    for the rest of the students use a method of instruction that does not match their style.
3. Give all the students the same test of performance and see whether matching instruction
    method with learning style leads to higher performance.

The first disturbing finding:
Only six published studies used the method I described above. In the last 30 years,
many hundreds of articles and books have been published, but only six times did anyone
clearly test the learning styles hypothesis.

The second disturbing finding:
The results of five of these studies failed to support the hypothesis: matching a method of
instruction with individuals’ learning styles did not produce any difference in academic performance.
The one other study, in Pashler et al.’s words, “provided less than compelling evidence.” (23)
(For a summary of the weaknesses of this one study, click here.)

“In summary, our efforts revealed at most one arguable piece of evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis
in general. For the many specific assessment devices and interventions being actively marketed to teachers
. . . we were unable to find any evidence that would meet the key criteria discussed earlier [comparing the
performance of matched and mismatched learning styles/instruction methods].” (24)

SO WHAT?

This is not just a disagreement about theories of education. Trying to apply the learning styles
idea is very costly. Here are some of the ways that time and money are consumed:
1. People have proposed at least 71 different “learning styles” models, so Cabrillo faculty
    and administrators must decide which model(s) to use.
2. Each student must be tested to identify a learning style (or styles).
3. Each instructor must develop instructional materials suited to each learning style.
4. Each of the students must be given the materials that match their learning styles.
5. Instructors must collect data to validate the effectivenss of each of these diverse materials.
6. Because ideas must be presented in diverse ways, more time is required to present them.
    This means either (a) fewer ideas will be presented, or (b) occasionally more than one instructor
     will be required for the course.

There is no credible evidence that “the benefits of learning-styles interventions exceed other ways of
using the time and money needed to incorporate these interventions. . . . Thus, limited education resources
would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have [a] strong evidence base,
of which there are an increasing number.” (39)

WHAT WORKS

Here are some techniques to enhance student learning that are supported by strong scientific evidence:
(a) have students generate their own examples of concepts
(b) give feedback immediately after performances (including exams)
(c) encourage students to space study sessions across days & weeks (versus cramming)
(d) have group studying in which students explain course concepts to one another
(e) interleave different types of practice problems (instead of using long series of similar problems)
(f)  repeatedly test the same information (on different occasions)
(g) avoid testing immediately after new material is learned (because this makes students overconfident)
(h) have cumulative final assessments

LINGERING QUESTIONS

Do students prefer some methods of instructions over others? Of course they do, but students’ preferences
for some activities are not necessarily related to how well they learn new ideas. 
“Most critically, the reality of these preferences does not demonstrate that assessing a student’s learning style
would be helpful in providing effective instruction for that student.” (18)

Research shows that students often don’t know which study techniques actually improve their performance.
“As learners, we can be fooled by subjective impressions, such as the ease or sense of familiarity we gain on
reading expository text or how readily some information comes to mind, both of which can be products of
factors unrelated to actual comprehension or understanding.” (40)

If there’s no solid evidence that student performance is related to learning styles,
why is the idea so popular?
“It is . . . natural and appealing to think that all people have the potential to learn effectively and easily
if only instruction is tailored to their individual learning styles.”

“If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for
the person to think that the educational system . . . is responsible. That is, rather than attribute one’s lack
of success to any lack of ability or effort . . . it may be more appealing to think that the fault lies with
instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style.” (16)

REFERENCES

For more on the lack of evidence that student performance is related to learning styles, see . . .

Coffield, F. C., Moseley, D. V. M., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16
learning: Findings of a systematic and critical review of learning styles models. London: Learning and Skills
Research Centre.

Kappe, F. R., Boekholt, L., den Rooyen, C. & Van der Flier, H. (2009). A predictive validity study of the Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ) using multiple, specific learning criteria. Learning and Individual Differences, 19, 464–467.

Kavale, K. A., Hirshoren, A. & Forness, S. R. (1998) Meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn Model
of Learning-Style Preferences: A critique of what was Dunn. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 13,
75-80.

Koob, J. J. & Funk, J. (2002). Kolb's Learning Style Inventory: Issues of reliability and validity. Research on
Social Work Practice, 12, 293-308.