Correcting Brain Myths (2): The Brain and the Myth of Learning Styles

I have been as guilty as any of proposing and spreading the learning styles myth. Both early in my career as an English teacher to adults, and as I moved into communication training to corporates. Learning styles felt good, seemed intuitively true, and helped me get a grasp on the world. I thought I was doing a good thing and was proud of my knowledge: “I know about teaching, and I know about learning styles”.

This, as I became more and more involved with neuroscience, slowly faded — it gradually became clear that this truly was a myth. Indeed quick google search will find many pages that soundly and scientifically debunk the learning styles myth.

The good news is the myth amongst teachers seems to be dropping; in a 2012 study 93% believed the myth — a more recent study published in 2017 showed 76% of teachers believing in it. However, that still leaves three-quarters of teachers still believing a myth that has been resoundingly debunked for nigh on two decades. The good news in higher education, at least, is that in 2017 only 54% believed the myth according another study. We are moving in the right direction, but it obviously still needs to be dispelled with a majority of educators.

The myth is so pervasive because it feels intuitively right, it feels good, it feels like we are respecting and valuing individual differences, and it feels like we are being effective as teachers. There are also multiple models that are pumping out literature, video, courses, and motivational messages and this combined with the intuitive feel for it keeps a self-feeding cycle in place. More surprising is that a 2015 review of academic papers that refer to learning styles, shows that 94% start out with a positive review of learning styles (even if they debunk them later — hang on, have I just done that!). This means that even a teacher that is reviewing academic literature on the topic of learning styles is likely to come across more positivity than negativity despite a profound lack of evidence learning styles do any good.

But first let’s understand a little more about where this all started:

Background

It all began in the 1970s and 1980’s — this was the beginning of the human potential movement and of increased awareness of success and personality including Gardner proposing the concept of multiple intelligences which immediately became wildly popular.

Kolb’s Learning Styles model was one of the first proposed, as part of his work on experiential learning, and became a common part of teacher training. Kolb categorizes a processing aspect, thinking/feeling, and a perception aspect, watching/doing. The model has, to give it credit, been refined over the years. One of the biggest problems is that measurement of thinking and feeling is considered a sliding scale — if you are a “feeler” you are not a “thinker”. This contrasts with some of our work and research into personality where we have noticed that high performers (including in educational contexts) have high intuition i.e. gut feeling, and high cognition i.e. thinking (see below).

Thinking and feeling are two abilities we have and may be both high, both low, or any other variation of this. This hence applies to any of the many models that see thinking and feeling as mutually exclusive.

Other learning style models have also been proposed are the famed VAK or VARK model which refers to modalities (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic). This was also popularized with the advent of NLP particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The VAK model states that we have preferred method of input Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic. This may intuitively feel good: “I like things when they are presented visually hence I am a visual learner”. But, critically, it makes no sense — the brain is designed to operate with all senses in unison and integration. Research shows that we are all visual learners, irrespective of what we report. Research also shows that reported preference of learning styles has no correlation to learning!

In the meantime, there have been many others styles proposed, often backed by lucrative programs, workshops, material and sometimes modest scientific data. Some draw on what were current popular theories or were current developments in research and include cognitive styles and, for example, what had been recent research into neuroscience (which we at leading brains know a thing or two about). The fault is these are often based on preliminary research and assumptions but lack rigorous scientific evidence. Marketeers often jump on any research if there is a potential to package this and market it effectively. This is more often than not debunked or moderated by later research.

So let’s review the most common styles what does the research says:

Styles & Research

One of the most detailed reviews of learning styles is Coffield et al’s meta-analysis going way back to 2004 and gives three categories of learning styles:

  • Instructional Styles (e.g. Kolb), these claim that instructional styles impact learning outcomes e.g. In Kolb’s model it would be experiencing vs. observing.
  • Information Processing Styles (e.g. MBTI / VAK), these claim that we process information differently such as the VAK model suggesting that some process visual better than auditory and vice versa.
  • Cognitive Styles (e.g. Cognitive Styles Index — CSI), these claim that we have different cognitive ways of thinking such as left right brain (see our blog post here), cognitive vs. intuitive, etc. In Coffield’s study, the CSI had the most evidence to support its efficacy

Coffield et al selected, the 13 most promising styles from an initial selection of 71 possible theories. From these they only saw five with limited use. Indeed, the biggest use seems to be in raising awareness and hence increasing student’s metacognition rather than in being effective methods of increasing learning impact.

In fact, some research has pointed that learning styles may make us feel more comfortable but that more learning occurred in the non-preferred mode. This comes down to what is known as learning friction i.e. discomfort increases learning because of the extra effort required which activates more cognitive resources. So, ironically, the best way to stimulate learning may be by not teaching to preferred learning styles.

In contrast, using multiple approaches seems to be simply good practice — rather than targeting styles we all benefit from having material presented in different ways. The Yale Centre for Teaching and Learning summarizes it well here:

Are styles making us dumber?

There is also a downside to styles. They may raise awareness, but they also may lead us to discard other methods. i.e. “I am a visual leaner so can’t or won’t learn through auditory methods”. In addition they give permission to go the easy route, or even ignore learning in other styles “I am a visual learner, so won’t learn with auditory input”.

Similarly, making learning fun and simple means that we can no longer engage with more complex learning processes. This may sound counter-intuitive but for true learning and effective learning to happen we need to engage the brain at intense levels — just not all the time (for recovery to happen as we have mentioned in previous blogs).

Leaning styles hence could be making us less willing to engage in the difficult stuff which is not a good lesson for life. Obviously, we do want learning and teaching to be fun and engaging but not everything in the real world is like this — more importantly, it is not how nature and biology works. For example, in Kolb’s experiential vs. reflective it may mean focusing on experiential learning at the expense of reflective learning — reflective learning and cognitive processes such as abstraction are, however, critical abilities and ones that we certainly would wish to approach. To build abstract and reflective thinking we need to practice it.

This is also illustrated in a learning style few consider — namely that of owls and larks. Those who are early risers, larks, are more active in the morning and can and want to learn earlier. Similarly, owls are more active later in the day and will engage better at later times (you may want to look at Sarah-Jayne Blackmore’s research on teenage brains and sleep). But what is surprising is that owls and larks are both more creative outside their preferred times — precisely because they’re outside their preferred times!

Metacognition is king!

We at leading brains developed refined personality measurement tool a few years ago to better get a grip on personality and match this to the latest knowledge in neuroscience. We have since then tested hundreds of people in education, business, and the start-up space. This has given us some very interesting insights into personality and also of higher performing individuals and high performing teams (my medium article here also gives some fascinating insights into this).

As I noted above in our research, in contrast to the cognitive vs. intuitive styles, we noted high performers in all areas have, often (but not always)a combination of high intuition and high cognition going against a cognitive styles model.

This has also appeared in other traits such as risk and safety. Traits often combine; and learning to use them in more effective ways seems to contribute more to driving success. Therefore, the ability of metacognition, being able to reflect on thinking and learning, can be more effective than anything else.

Indeed, focus on metacognition, has been shown to improve learning outcomes. So, learning styles are out, but learning about learning is in!

Differentiating between studying and learning is also important: studying is about the process, and learning is about the deeper mechanisms of how the brain forms connections and memories and relationships to content (we write articles every month in leading brains Review on the brain and learning — we have identified more than 20 mechanisms!).

Summary

Learning styles, though feeling intuitively good, are soundly wrong. In fact, they may be dangerous and decrease learning outcomes. Using multiple methods to transport content is simple good practice in teaching.

Additionally, engaging students in metacognition, thinking about thinking and learning, and teaching neuroplasticity have been shown to improve learning outcomes.

A final thought is that many classic dichotomies such as thinking vs. feeling are fundamentally wrong and we should be trying to improve both. Ignoring one may lead to lack of development of critical life skills.

The brain and human behaviour, in business, society, learning, and health.

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