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Do Learning Styles Limit Learning?

Chances are that ever since you were a young student you have been hearing about learning styles, and there are plenty of surveys that supposedly help you determine what kind of learner you are.  In fact, researchers found that over 90% of students in a psychology course agree that "people have their own learning styles" [3].  Each of us can certainly identify with having preferences (e.g., I prefer to watch a video than to read an article), but does that mean that we truly learn better in some situations than in others?

As intuitive as it may seem, researchers have found no experimental evidence that there truly are fundamental difference in the way that people learn [2].  Despite the fact that some people may have stronger verbal skills while others have stronger visual skills, measurement of their actual abilities were unrelated to their reported preferences [1] and there is no scientific studies showing that people with different preferences perform better on an exam when the information was presented in one way or the other [2].

Thus, we have to be careful when we talk about our own preferences and our performance -- when we convince ourselves that the reason we did not do well on something is because the presentation did not match our learning style we are making a conclusion that is not supported by scientific evidence and, even worse, we are failing to address the real reasons for why we did not learn something as well as we could have.  So far the research suggests that if learning styles are limiting learning at all is it because we believe we are not capable of learning in certain ways.
  1. Massa, L.J., & Mayer, R.E. (2006). Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style? Learning and Individual Differences, 16, 321–336.
  2. Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
  3. Riener, C. & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change, 42(5), 32-35.