Learning styles - myth or reality?
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” - Joseph Campbell, mythologist
You have certainly heard many myths throughout your life. Some of them are ancient, for example the lost city of Atlantis. Others are more recent, for instance the famous five-second rule, which states that food dropped on the floor will not be contaminated by bacteria if it is picked up within five seconds of being dropped. So, you may want to think twice before you eat that dropped piece of chocolate. Yet again, did it not technically get contaminated the moment you opened the package and came in contact with the air and your hands? Bon appetit!
Society is filled with myths. As humans, we come across them on an almost daily basis. The vast majority of them are harmless, such as the historical or Greek ones, and it is actually very interesting to hear them. However, some of them can become quite problematic if people become indoctrinated. One such myth is about different learning styles (your preferred way of learning that provides you with maximum results). This article will discuss what makes it completely far-fetched, the reasons for its persistence even in the 21st century and its impacts upon learning.
Myth or reality?
“Learning styles” are a subjective categorization whereby different people learn information in different ways, suggesting better learning outcomes. More than likely, you have heard of so-called visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learners. Perhaps you even framed yourself into one of these categories and structured your learning in order to fit that label. Unfortunately, it is one of the biggest myths of learning which almost everyone believes. In fact, on average, over 95% of educators worldwide swear by this “neuromyth” and have shaped their teaching according to this practice. So, what makes “learning styles” totally far-fetched?
Lack of real evidence
For anything to be considered “real”, its existence has to be shown or proved. That’s right, this also applies to the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. What’s the universally accepted way of achieving this? Science. However, it’s not an easy task to carry out detached, objective, factual, and unbiased scientific studies. Hence, they range on a huge spectrum of quality, from Nobel Prize standards down to questionable ideals.
Unfortunately, the ones about learning styles fall in the latter category and there are a lot of them. According to experts in learning psychology, those studies are fundamentally flawed in their design, as explained below:
- Correlation does not imply causation - This belief is the deadliest trap of science and statistics. Just because a self identified “visual learner” memorizes and understands a topic better through illustrative teaching methods like images and diagrams, it does not mean this is the best and only way he can encode the information. The student could just as easily learn using other methods, so it’s incorrect to draw conclusions from such data. In addition, it is incorrect to say that learning outcomes are correlated or even causative with learning styles since it’s subjective to the user. For example, if you prefer to study off of figures and the only material provided are notes, you can understand how unmotivated you can become when studying. As a result, your learning outcomes can be hindered. You can see how the learning method itself wouldn’t change the learning outcomes but moreso your willingness to learn using this approach. Just because you prefer to learn a certain way, that doesn’t imply that that particular approach will yield different results than another, you are just closing doors in terms of using other learning strategies.
- Incorrect experimental design - It is impossible to obtain reliable, unbiased, and objective scientific data from an incorrectly designed experiment, a disease which plagues almost every study on learning styles. If your dinner is prepared and cooked inadequately, the only way it can taste is bad. The correct approach would be to classify learners into categories and randomly assign each of them to use one learning method out of many possibilities. To support the claim, the learners classified in a certain way, for example auditory, would have to learn better by using a method which matches their classification, for example hearing the information. Only then can the study be valid. A handful of learning styles articles are actually designed correctly and disprove the validity of learning styles. It seems that some “experts” see what they want to see...
For argument’s sake, let’s say that learning styles do exist. The next difficulty would be correctly classifying learners into categories. For example, how do you know that you are a kinesthetic learner? Do you employ a sophisticated, unbiased, and universally approved test or do you self-reflect and decide yourself?
Performing either one accurately is extremely challenging due to the multifactorial nature of the decision. Learning styles include many elements like sound, light, temperature, design, strengths, weaknesses, mobility, time of day, motivation, persistence, independence, impulsiveness, etc. In other words, it includes your personality, learning environment and feelings at a particular point in time. If you are asked what your preferred learning style is, you might be able to identify it instantly. However, your answer is influenced by elements from the above list which are extremely important to you. You are unaware of unimportant ones, hence you don’t take them into account and cannot categorise your learning style correctly.
Also, ask yourself, would a learning style be biologically or environmentally developed? What about gifted students? They don’t fit into one specific “learning style box”. Add to all of this the lack of real, scientific evidence discussed above and you end up with a “chicken and egg” scenario and an interesting philosophical debate. The result is certainly not a clear principle that should be followed religiously in order to teach future generations or for you to study anatomy!
Why does the myth persist?
All of the 95% of educators who completely agreed with the claim about learning styles did it in 2014. That’s right, it did not happen many moons ago, but in the 21st century. The myth doesn’t just persist like a cloud which is about to evaporate, but it seems to be deeply rooted. It should not be a surprise with so many articles built upon incorrect scientific criteria. Yet again, if there are so many, how is it possible that the vast majority of educators and learners are oblivious to these mistakes? Here are the reasons:
Lack of knowledge
Do you remember your very first time reading anatomy? Words like zygomaticotemporal and coracobrachialis felt like they were from a different planet. The lack of previous exposure to the subject also didn’t help.
Educators and learners feel the same way when dealing with science, neuroscience, cognition, etc. Unless someone is working within the field itself, the exposure to such knowledge is very limited. Teachers are not exposed to neuroscience in their training and the gap between the terminology/theories and nonspecialists’ understanding is extremely wide. As a result, it is impossible to understand primary research and disprove an incorrect article or a myth.
Naturally, every myth has a small seed of truth out of which it sprung. For learning styles, the myth is based on the brain cortex having several divisions, with each one playing a crucial role in various types of information processing. This fact is absolutely true, but the interconnectivity of the brain shatters the idea that a learner uses predominantly just one division compared to others. It’s quite easy to spot the potential for confusion if someone doesn’t know where to look. Paying attention to all your neuroanatomy classes does help in the end, does it not?
Although many articles were incorrectly designed, there were a handful that respected scientific criteria. These actually disproved the learning styles idea. Why were these articles overlooked?
Many myths are propagated because counterevidence is usually extremely difficult to find, even for experts protecting the myth from scrutiny. It is like searching for a needle in a haystack! In fact, the threat of scrutiny is extremely low for non testable ideas and you’ve seen the difficulty of designing a study about learning styles. Combine this with a lack of expert knowledge or training, and the information is missed, misinterpreted, or ignored. The result? An innocent snowball becoming an avalanche, which comes crashing down. The myth remains unchecked, it spreads, and reaches the 21st century.
We are all humans, hence we are emotionally, culturally, and religiously biased. Each person wants to believe they are unique and special. What better way to accomplish this than to believe an idea that points to such individuality? By having a preferred learning style and a corresponding method which fits each individual extremely well, everyone can feel free and different than those around them. It simply feels normal and good.
Human nature is also plagued with confirmation bias, which is the desire to be right or the refusal to be wrong. Therefore, for someone to prove themselves right they look for information supporting their beliefs and ignore the information which challenges it.
Lastly, humans tend to simply accept a very pervasive idea such as different learning styles. Once it spreads amongst individuals and its popularity skyrockets, it is not usually challenged. This can happen even among the scientific community, nevermind between nonspecialists. It would be like trying to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Almost no one thinks about doing it!
Let’s say you believe in this myth and you might possibly use it on a daily basis. What’s the problem if you keep doing it?
The moment you categorize yourself, you instantly limit your possibilities. You can’t see the forest from the trees because you are obsessed with a single type of learning. You are simply ignoring potentially useful learning strategies that might help you even more compared to the one you are currently using. This becomes especially important if your current method is not really working. Don’t look only at what is straight in front you, but into the horizon and expand your possibilities!
There is an alternative to having a specific learning style, which is to have a collection of learning strategies up your sleeve. The fact that learning styles are a myth is excellent because you can now learn in many ways. A good starting point would be Kenhub’s learning strategies. Filled with a variety of methods, it will show you how to process information the way everyone should; through all the senses. Do you want to learn anatomy using Anki, a coloring book, or by playing games? Perhaps you want to see the power of active recall and how to start using it. Go and check them out and build your very own arsenal to tackle any kind of learning!
Ultimately, you don’t have a specific learning style. You are not a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner, but an individual human being which can learn using a variety of methods. Take advantage of this and never limit yourself because in terms of learning, the world is your oyster!