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Learning Styles: what?!


I have just* read “Learning styles – and other made-up stuff” by Kirsty Newman (she of the glamourous shoes and international development).

Image courtesy of Kirsty Newman

In the post, Kirsty relates her experience of being taught to teach (how very meta) advanced immunology using a variety of teaching methods. This is in order that students with different “learning styles” will best be able to absorb (although is learning really about absorption? – a debate for another time, no doubt) information in the way that suits them best. Unfortunately, as Kirsty points out, that’s not quite how learning works.

According to the “learning styles” theory, people fall into categories such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Each type of person learns best according to their learning style. So, to make a lesson appropriate for a group including more than one type of learner, teachers should include a variety of communications tools, such as imagery, sounds, and movement.

By sheer coincidence, it turns out that such non-monotonous lessons are interesting**, entertaining** and engaging** anyway. So it doesn’t really matter that the theory behind it is a bit silly. Indeed, as far as I know, no-one yet believes so strongly in the theory to have suggested segregated groups and different types of assessment… Nor has anyone tried to come up with specific sessions for olfactory learners. If that kind of thing were put forward, I think a few more people being taught about learning styles would speak up about it.

Kirsty points out that it is not the individual that determines the best way of teaching an idea. Rather, it is (brace yorsrelves…) the idea itself. Some ideas are simply better transmitted visually, whereas others require auditory transmission. Some can be successfully discussed through the medium of interpretive dance, whilst others need tying down with precisely defined words and formalism.

Kirsty is not alone in her experience: she also lists other relevant blog posts at the end of hers. Adding to this, I have also been taught about learning styles in academic environments. Course members were asked to assess their own learning style using a questionnaire. It all seemed a bit… odd. For every example of an area where I like the idea of visual learning (without going into the question of pictures versus words versus diagrams etc), I could think of others where I would prefer something more “experiential”. Take floorball, for example. As a goalkeeper, I learn much more about how to play by actually playing. The same is true of my experience as a referee.

But here, another distinction appears. As well as the variation due to the idea as pointed out by Kirsty, I think that the best way to learn something depends on how familiar one is with the concept in the first place. To return to the floorball example: even as a complete beginner, the best way to learn goalkeeping was to try it, with a few hints and tips shouted at me (do advocates of learning styles distinguish between talking and shouting?) from behind the net. On the other hand, refereeing is not something one can just pick up (I’ve seen it attempted, it’s not pretty). At first, the best way to learn refereeing is to read the rules, go over diagrams and ask questions of other referees.

There are countless counter-examples to the idea of people having a main style of learning. Another from my own experience is drumming, which is very much about reading, listening and moving, all at the same time. It’s more of the same when it comes to languages, too. I think people being taught to teach should be encouraged to vary their techniques, but not for the sake of a silly pseudo-scientific notion of individual learning styles. They should do it because it makes for better engagement all round.

Bonus question: Does anyone else think this “learning style” idea bears more than a passing resemblance to astrology? i.e. the arbitrary classification of people, not being based on evidence, the fact that it’s largely ignored and probably mostly harmless, but still pervasive, etc.


*It was a few hours ago now, because silly WordPress ate the first version of this post. I like this version better though, so silver lining and lesson learnt.

**Same thing? Let’s not get into the debate over that particular point of semantics here.That’s for another post.

  1. sTeamTraen permalink

    People who talk about V-A-K learning styles are typically recent “graduates” of NLP training programmes. On those courses, you learn that people who say “let’s keep in touch” are Ks and those who say “I see what you mean” are Vs, etc etc. All totally unevidenced, of course, as is pretty much all of NLP.

  2. I am a bit dubious about VAK learning styles, because as you say, it depends on what you’re trying to learn, and also because I learn best in a face-to-face interaction with another human being telling me a summary of the topic, and then going away and trying the thing on my own. But the summary or overview or synthesis is much more important than the mode of delivery.

    I do know that I prefer someone else to provide me the summary as a framework, and then I flesh out the details later, rather than being given the details and having to produce my own summary (very demotivating for me unless I am really interested in the topic).

  3. Thanks for joining the chorus of voices against the myth of learning styles. Some people have liked my summary of the evidence (or lack thereof) of learning styles in Change Magazine.

  4. Leon Osborne permalink

    The HR team at my work are very into learning styles and personality tests (I’ve had to do about four or five in the past two years). They haven’t told us about VAK learning styles yet (emphasis on the “yet”), I’m sure it will be coming. I agree it depends on what you are learning and trying to categorise people with these style of ‘tests’ is akin to astrology.

    • Thanks for your input, Leon.

      I’m less skeptical about personality types. Supposedly there is good evidence for variability along just the 5 OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism,) traits accounting for most variability in people’s reactions to situations, behaviours etc.

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