Nov 16 / Lily Wilson

Debunking traditional learning styles

The myth of VAK!

Learning styles are often discussed in education as though they are irrefutable and common sense, but the research on their effectiveness is mixed.

In recent years, there has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that the myth of learning styles may be doing more harm than good to both students and educators alike. 

What do people mean when they talk about learning styles? 

The idea of ‘learning styles’ was popularised in the 1990s by Felmming and Mills who referred to ideas about the different ways that people learn and popularised the acronym VAK (or VARK)- which stands for Visual, Auditory, (Reading), and Kinaesthetic learning:

Visual learners: students who learn best by seeing information.

Auditory learners: students who learn best by hearing information.

: students who learn by ready and writing information.

Kinesthetic learners
: students who learn best by doing things. 

The myth of learning styles 

The theory of learning styles took hold in education largely because it seemed to be so common sense: it is true that different parts of the brain process information in different ways, and that people will have different processing strengths and abilities- for example, some people may seem to learn better by reading, while others may seem to learn better by listening.

However, this does not mean that students with particular processing strengths or weaknesses can only learn in one specific way.

This is where the persistence of the myth becomes so challenging…

The myth of learning styles has led many educators to believe that children learn best when information is presented to them in their preferred ‘learning style’. For example, if someone is labelled as an “auditory learner”, they would learn best by listening to a lecture, or if someone is considered to be a “visual learner”, they would learn best by reading a textbook or watching a video, and so their learning should be structured to reflect this.
The problem here is that there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that learning styles exist in this rigid way. Instead, such differences in learning are due to a variety of other factors, such as students' prior knowledge, interests, and motivation. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the myth of learning styles may be doing more harm than good.

A 2009 review of the research on learning styles found that there is "no evidence that matching instructional methods to students' alleged learning styles leads to improved academic outcomes."

Another study, published in 2015, found that students who were taught about learning styles actually performed worse than students who were not taught about learning styles. The researchers concluded that the idea of learning styles "may actually be harmful to student learning." 

Moving on from ‘learning styles’- what should Teachers do instead? 

Instead of focusing on learning styles, teachers should focus on creating a positive learning environment where all students feel supported and challenged. The best approach is to use a variety of teaching methods and to reach out to students who are struggling. Teachers should also avoid labelling students as being one type of learner or another.

The research suggests that teachers should focus on using evidence-based teaching methods that are effective for all students. For example, teachers should use direct instruction, provide scaffolded support, provide explicit and timely feedback, and give students opportunities to practice what they are learning.
At Prospero Learning, we have a range of online CPD that can support you to deliver evidence-based teaching methods, and to help you to create a positive learning environment where your students will thrive. We have dedicated courses for Supply Teachers, Class Teachers, and Teaching Assistants on using positive behaviour management techniques, and on how to use scaffolding effectively to promote independence in your learners.

For our full catalogue of free and paid for courses, click here.