In many high school career classes, it is common practice to require students to take learning style assessments, which reveal how someone learns best. Results from these sorts of tests can range from visual to auditory or bodily-kinesthetic. But what if everything that is said about this well-established theory of learning is not what it seems?
The theory of learning styles has been around since the 1960s, outlining that students learn information best when it is presented in their learning style, according to Michigan State University’s College of Education. When first introduced, the theory caught on quickly, gaining traction over the years as students found relatability in their learning styles.
Even today, students like Alyana Placencia and Taryn Galindo, sophomore psychology majors, know their learning styles and find they succeed more when in a class format that matches their learning styles.
“I personally am a visual learner, and being able to map out what it is that is being said or taught is much easier to comprehend,” Placencia said. “I find most of the classes I have had to be more visual and auditory. Whether reading from the textbook or presenting a slideshow, it seems to be the main approach with teaching.”
Galindo said she works best with a visual, active approach to learning.
“I prefer reading and writing when I am learning because it helps me focus my thoughts and practice what I need to work on,” Galindo said. “Auditory is definitely the hardest for me to learn. For some reason, I can’t process auditory information as well as written information.”
Galindo added that because she is a visual learner, she always watches television with subtitles so she can read and understand what characters are saying.
However, science may not necessarily support the existence of learning styles.
Dr. Erin Smith, professor of psychology, explains that she does not think there are specific learning styles that correspond to each individual.
When asked how many learning styles she believes to exist, Smith said, “None.”
“I mean, I say that and I laugh, but I mean it,” Smith said. “As I mentioned, learning styles are a thing that exists in popular culture but aren’t actually real.”
Smith explained that our reliance on the concept of learning styles comes from heuristics — mental shortcuts that help everyone function daily, which can take the form of assumptions about the world or reliance on past experiences to draw a road map for future activities. Without heuristics, it would be impossible to function well enough to even leave our houses.
But why does society continue to cling to these outdated ideals, especially if they have been shown to do more harm than good for students by giving students a preconceived notion of how a class will go depending on its teaching structure?
Smith explained that because the educational system is consistently playing catchup with new research, schools tend to be at least a decade behind the research. This is for good reason — if schools changed their learning tactics at the drop of a hat, students would end up learning less and finding more difficulty in adapting to the newest research. However, in the case of learning styles, they are still being taught in schools, but research may find that learning styles are ineffective and, at times, even harmful.
For students put into a class that is not taught in the way that the student learns best, unconscious biases take a toll. When students know they are in a class that is not taught in their learning style, they might not try as hard, which translates to worse grades and a subconscious connection between incompatible learning styles and failure.
In the end, Smith said she wants readers to remember that students should not define themselves by their learning style, but rather label themselves as hard workers or as strong students.
“Sometimes the hard work is going to involve auditory activities,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s going to involve visual activities. Sometimes it will involve kinesthetic activities. But when you are committed to learning rather than a particular way of learning, it actually gives you a lot more freedom to do the learning you desire to do.”