One of the most popular theories in teaching is that there are four different types of learners and the need to adapt lessons to address everyone. At least 90% of teachers believe in this theory and a lot of effort goes into training teachers to meet the needs of different types of learners. But just because a theory is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. The truth is, there’s no evidence that proves students learn more effectively when lessons are tailored to their unique learning styles.
Read on to unpack the facts and misconceptions behind the learning styles myth.
What are the four learning styles?
When people talk about the four different learning styles, they are usually referring to the VARK model, which defines the different types as: visual learners who like to see information, auditory learners who would rather hear it, reading and writing learners who prefer interacting with text, and kinesthetic learners who prefer a hands-on approach.
This theory is based on how people like to be presented with information. For example, some people would rather be told directions, while others would rather see those directions on a map.
It’s a really appealing concept and it’s understandable that teachers have latched onto the idea. “Teachers like to think that they can reach every student, even struggling students, just by tailoring their instruction to match each student’s preferred learning format,” says Abby Knoll, Ph.D. student at Central Michigan University who studied learning styles.
When it comes down to it, learning styles are more of a preference to a type of communication than anything else. Understanding your students’ learning styles may affect how you interact with them, and in fact, you can use presentation software like Prezi Next and video tools like Prezi Video to create more engaging presentations that trigger different senses and reach different types of people. You just can’t expect your students’ learning to improve, even if they’re more tuned into the material.
Current research on learning styles
If you do a quick Google search about learning styles, you’ll find thousands of results about what they are and how teachers can use them. Even with all that info out there, a recent review of scientific research found little evidence that students’ learning actually improves when the instructional style matches the learning style.
As psychologists Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler wrote in their research, “it does indeed make sense to speak of students who, in comparison with their peers, have poor visual-spatial ability and strong verbal ability, but this does not imply that such students will learn anatomy better if their textbook has few diagrams.”
Flipped classroom and the learning styles myth
Now that flipped classrooms are more common and more classes are online, it’s often up to students to master information on their own. Researchers Polly Hussman and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin investigated if students used study styles that aligned with their learning styles, and if that study style paid off and led to greater learning.
Nearly 70% of students failed to employ study techniques that supported their learning styles. Most visual learners did not rely heavily on visual strategies (such as diagrams or graphics), and most reading/writing learners didn’t rely on reading strategies (e.g., reviewing notes or reading their textbook). Students who used study strategies that aligned with their VARK learning styles performed no better than students who did not.
What should teachers do?
Even though there’s plenty of evidence that debunks the learning style myth, teachers should still use different mediums and strategies to reach their students. Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham encourages teachers to focus on the medium that best supports the content, rather than the medium that best reaches the student.
For instance, if you’re teaching Shakespeare, students should be able to hear the stresses in iambic pentameter as much as they should be able to see them visually represented in text.
Teachers in Prezi’s community have already nailed this. In her Prezi video, Gabrielle Creagh uses a map as a visual aid while she discusses geography’s role in shaping Columbia’s economy:
With this setup, students get to see the relationship between Columbia’s terrain and its cities, and they are also given context through Gabrielle’s voice over. Her lesson has both visual and auditory elements, and it’s very effective.
Many teachers have turned to Prezi Video as a teaching aid in the shift to remote learning. With Prezi Video, teachers are able to have multimedia presentations, including images, text, and graphics, all while staying onscreen and keeping that face-to-face connection with their students.