Neuromyths in Education, Part II: Learning Styles

See Neuromyths in Education, Part I: Introduction for an overview and definitions.

What’s the myth?

Learners will learn better if taught using a method consistent with their learning style, an approach sometimes called “meshing.”

There are many different taxonomies of learning styles; one systematic review identified more than 70! In the museum field, one of the most popular[1] is VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), sometimes expanded to VARK (visual, auditory, reader/writer, kinesthetic) or VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile).

What’s the reality?

There’s evidence that learners have preferred ways of receiving information. However, there’s no evidence that “meshing” leads to improved educational outcomes.

What’s the evidence?

The Association for Psychological Science commissioned an extensive review. The full text is available online. The key findings:

[A]ny credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding… Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style.

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

[A]t present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. 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.

Why does the myth persist?

  • Studies with negative or null results are far less likely to be published than studies with positive or significant results [2]. This publication bias has contributed to the longevity and durability of the learning styles myth.
  • It “feels” true. Studies have shown that information style preferences are associated with subjective judgements of learning. However, they are not associated with objective measures of learning. [3]
  • A more detailed analysis of why this myth just “won’t die”[4].

A caveat for museums

As free-choice learning environments, museums (some may argue) need to accommodate preferences: visitors may choose not to engage in an experience that doesn’t align with their preferences, and if they don’t engage, they can’t learn.

This post is not an argument to abandon multi-modal, multi-sensory experiences and accessibility. But let’s not justify them based on an unproven theory from the formal education environment. Findings from research in formal education can inform our practice in informal settings. But it has to be good research, not neuromyths.

Let’s avoid pigeon-holing visitors. Let’s not think of them as belonging to simplistic—and limiting—categories.

On a related note, here’s some of my favorite research about what does work in informal environments:

What are your favorites?

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