The Myth of “Different Learning Styles”

Many people feel like they have a unique way they learn best.

It seems to make sense. You may have heard of auditory, kinesthetic and visual learners. This was one of the earliest ideas I ran into when I first started studying learning theories. There are even online tests to help you discover what kind of learner you are. There’s just one problem.

They don’t work.

The Failure of Learning Styles

The research shows that there is no benefit to targeting a specific “learning style” on a per-student basis. Of all the educational techniques we could focus on, spending money on these does not make much sense.

This can be hard for some people to swallow. Learning styles feel right. I know that I often visualize a page of information in order to recall it. Wouldn’t that suggest that I’m a visual learner?

Yes and no. The research is not saying that people are all the same. There are definitely individual differences. Rather, the research shows that focusing on a per-student learning style does not yield better results. Changing your curriculum based upon your “style” is not effective. Instead, there are other strategies which embrace the differences without changing the material.

The Truth About What Works

Can you imagine learning anatomy without pictures? Music without sound?

These examples were raised in a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (which dealt with this subject). Their point was that the content dictates the presentation, not the student. Again, it is not that students all learn the same. Rather, the material needs to start from the most effective place. From there, it’s actually beneficial to incorporate all “learning styles.”

This is due to elaborate encoding. The more unique ways we are exposed to information, the better we will remember it. The problem with “learning styles” is in excluding other styles. Even if a student has a “dominant style,” the other presentations of the information can only help to reinforce the material.

Why It Works

To understand why, let’s look at how the brain works. Information is connected to other information. It’s possible to make a single connection stronger. But more effective is to add more connections. The more connections, the more solidified the information becomes. The easier it is to retrieve. Learning something in many different ways via elaborate encoding adds more context. Instead of being tied to just one thing, it’s now deeply connected to many things in the brain.

Consider the analogy of a street address. Growing up, I lived at the end of a dead-end street. There was only one way to get there. You had to make the exact right turns. If you happened to be on the other side of the dead-end, you had to drive all the way around to get to my house. It wouldn’t have helped to make the dead-end street bigger. Nor would it have helped to increase the speed limit. However, if the street had only been doubly connected (went all the way through), you could have driven right up to my front door. In the same way, the more connections exist in the brain, the easier it is to get to the information.

How to Study Better

The best approach for the student is to seek out many different explanations and exercises. Instead of re-reading the same chapter over and over, read a different book on the same subject. Maybe the second author will explain it in a way that makes more sense to you.

Often, the combination of the two explanations is what really makes the information click. It’s not that one was better or worse, per se. The novelty of the second presentation helps increase attention, too. Pre-testing and good note taking can further expose your brain to more context. This sort of active engagement with the material causes your brain to build even more roads, as it tries to link the information with whatever it can.

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