There are no learning styles

May 24, 2011 at 7:52 am 7 comments

This is an older (year old) NYTimes piece, but wow, what a cool one! Really interesting insights into study skills and misconceptions about how studying works. My favorite part, though, is addressing one of the most prevalent claims I hear: That there are “learning styles.” There aren’t. They don’t measurably exist.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

via Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits –

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Beth Simon  |  May 24, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Should be a required read in a department meeting (in every department on campus, not just CS). I’ve had this article taped on my door with highlights and sticky-note call outs for a year. It gathers attention.

    Everybody should read the whole thing (2 pages?). There’s more there that’s really good (e.g. deliberate practice)….

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  May 24, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I don’t think I have a psychological stake in either of the theories. But I do worry about the nature of the experiments and of the level of the claims for both theories. As mentioned previously, the bug here is that it is only if all the cases have been identified and eliminated that such claims can be made. Most studies do not stand up to close examination from logic errors alone.

    I much prefer the “what can children generally do?” studies.

    For example, Julia Nishijima for many years did “this and that” and essentially every child responded “thus and so”. Her results were spectacular and significant, because she was revealing general (and often unsuspected) potential in 6 year old children.

    My belief from observing this process many times is that Julia plus her methods was a goose laying golden eggs, and it would not be easy to extract and use any part in isolation. As with music, the score and the player in felicitous combination create the magic.



  • 3. Barry Brown  |  May 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    The authors seem to confound a distinction between a bona-fide learning style (that is, the capability or incapability of a student to learn in a specific mode of instruction) versus a learning preference. The study indicates that students don’t have a specific learning style — that they are all capable of learning in any mode. I would agree with that. But the confusion of terminology leads us to the conclusion that students ought not to have a learning preference, either, and thus that the method of instruction doesn’t matter.

    I would hope that the outcome of a study like this is not that instructors use it as ammunition to justify their PowerPoint lectures. I agree with the meshing principle and its ultimate goal of creating an environment that is conducive to learning.

  • […] article from NPR (linked below) offers more evidence that there is no such thing as learning styles, but this one goes even further.  These results suggest that teachers do a disservice to students […]

  • […] NYTimes recently had a series of op-ed articles about the role of technology in our world, specifically, “Is Silicon Valley Saving the World, or Just Making Money?” The piece by Melinda Gates (quoted below) caught my attention because she’s invoking the desire to meet students’ “different learning styles” (see blog post on this theme, and why it leads to worse learning). […]

  • […] interaction of learning styles and how that might influence how we learn programming. (Yes, I was a learning styles believer, too.)  Seymour did believe in styles of thinking, but didn’t buy the simplistic learning […]

  • […] snake oil out there. There are teaching methods that don’t actually work well for anyone (e.g., we could talk some more about learning styles) or only work for the most privileged students (e.g., lectures without active learning supports). […]


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