The Learning Styles Myth

Subliminal learning is only one popular aid to learning that is a waste of time and money because it does not work. Unfortunately education and learning are beset with fads, many based on inadequate research. These educational fads pop up like mushrooms after rain; one such fad is learning styles.

Learning styles are supposedly the different approaches that different people have to learning. The idea of individual learning styles originated in the 1970s, it has gained in credence since then.

Learning style theorists believe that each of us favors some particular method of interacting with, and processing information. This led to the proposition that teachers should assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student's learning style.

Proponents of learning styles claim that tailoring instruction to students’ learning styles will allow students to learn more effectively. [1]

One of the most widely-used models of learning styles is Fleming's VARK model which derived from Neuro-linguistic programming. [2] According to Fleming’s model, which is relatively simple, learners can be categorized as follows:
1. Visual learners,
2. Auditory learners,
3. Reading/writing-preference learners, and
4. Kinesthetic learners.

Fleming claimed that visual learners think in terms of pictures. So visual learners should be taught with visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, bullet point charts, etc. Auditory learners learn best from listening to lectures, discussions, and audio tracks. Reading/writing-preference learners allegedly learn from reading and writing and tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing.

VARK theorists expect that teachers should identify each student’s learning style and choose the learning experience that benefits them the most. The burden of this theory on already over-burdened teachers can only be imagined.

Despite the fact that it is almost impossible to implement in a functional classroom Fleming’s VARK theory is relatively simple compared to other learning style models such as those of David A. Kolb [3] and Honey and Mumford. [4]

David Kolb’s model is based on his Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Mark K. Smith is highly critical of Kolb’s model. [5]

Honey and Mumford’s model is an adaption of David Kolb’s model. Honey and Mumford adapted Kolb’s model for use in management education. Honey and Mumford’s model is designed for the continuing education of managers in business.

There are other models of learning styles; that are just as poorly designed, such as the models of Anthony Gregorc, the Sudbury model democratic schools which implement learning without teachers, Chris J Jackson's neuropsychological model and others.

According to neuroscientist Dr Susan Greenfield learning-style theories are "nonsense"; she says that: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain."

Many educational psychologists agree that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and that the models are often based on dubious theory. [6] According to Stahl, there has been an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning." [7]

The following analysis was retrieved from Wikipedia 07 Sept 2010:
A non-peer-reviewed literature review by authors from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne identified 71 different theories of learning style. This report, published in 2004, criticized most of the main instruments used to identify an individual's learning style. Coffield's team found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research, leading to the conclusion that the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all "highly questionable."

One of the most widely-known theories assessed by Coffield's team was the learning styles model of Dunn and Dunn, a VAK model. This model is widely used in schools in the United States, and 177 articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals referring to this model. The conclusion of Coffield et al. was as follows:
Despite a large and evolving research programme, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model. [Wikipedia]

The APS critique
The Association for Psychological Science (APS) commissioned a panel of leading psychologists and cognitive scientists to evaluate learning style models. The Panel concluded that:
“At 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 strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number.” [8]

The lesson from the learning styles critique is that you should not worry about determining your own or your children’s learning style, all our brains are similar and they evolved similar learning styles. Forget about learning styles and concentrate on effective study habits.

1. Dunn, R, & Dunn, K (1978). Teaching students through their individual learning styles: A practical approach. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.
2. Thomas F. Hawk, Amit J. Shah (2007) "Using Learning Style Instruments to Enhance Student Learning" Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education
3. Kolb, David (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
4. Honey, P & Mumford, A, (1982). The Manual of Learning Styles. Maidenhead, UK, Peter Honey Publications
5. Smith, M. K. (2001). David A. Kolb on experiential learning. Retrieved October 17, 2008, from:
6. Curry, L. (1990). One critique of the research on learning styles. Educational Leadership, 48, 50-56.
7. Stahl, S. A. (2002). Different strokes for different folks? In L. Abbeduto (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing on controversial issues in educational psychology (pp. 98-107). Guilford, CT, USA: McGraw-Hill.
8. Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. MICHAEL PETTY is an authority on accelerated learning, IQ, Neuro Science and brainwave entrainment. He has a BA from Durham UK, an MA from Calgary and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was a Canada Council Doctoral Fellow and his 1980 research on change in IQ scores, published in the British Journal Educational Research is still cited in Psychological texts. His latest book is Michael Petty, IQ Unlimited, Amazon Kindle. Visit Dr Petty’s website at