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The Persistence of the "Learning Styles" Myth

Teachers should have to pass licensure examinations of instructional expertise before they can work in a classroom, according to reasonable individuals. However, it’s difficult to argue that, if such a test is to be conducted, the questions should be based on the best data we have about how children learn. Right?

In fact, according to my research, government-distributed test-preparation materials for high-stakes certification exams in 29 states include the debunked theory of “learning styles,” which claims that tailoring instruction to students’ preferred mode of learning—for example, seeing, listening, or physically engaging in content-aligned activities—is beneficial.

My research expands on previous research that found the concept in textbooks and teacher trainings all around the United States. The availability of such content encourages the spread of a false theory.

There is little evidence that creating classes that cater to various learning styles helps students learn faster. Nonetheless, teacher candidates are told to keep these pseudoscientific type categories in mind at all times.

The concept of “learning styles” persists and is popular in the field, in part because many teachers are unaware of the scientific evidence that refutes it. When education and teacher preparation are informed by empirical evidence, they perform better than when they are not. It is critical to ensure that instructors are equipped with actual learning insights rather than falsehoods.

No Proof for Learning Styles Boost

Have you ever been told, “I’m a visual learner?” It’s a typical statement based on the assumption that different people learn in different ways. Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles are the most commonly mentioned, and they suggest that some people learn best by looking at pictures, while others learn best by hearing, and still others learn best by doing hands-on activities.

Despite a dearth of evidence that such styles exist (see “Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think,” features, Summer 2018), the belief that kids have distinct learning styles and learn best through these channels has shaped teacher practice for decades.

The idea in learning styles, like many other misunderstandings about learning and the brain, is based on an inaccurate interpretation of solid study findings and scientifically confirmed facts. Various forms of information, for example, are processed in different areas of the brain. It’s also true that people differ in terms of their abilities and preferences.

However, thorough study reviews and meta-analyses assessing the validity of learning styles and their applicability to education have come to the same result since the 1970s: there is little to no empirical evidence that learning styles are real, despite their intuitive appeal.

They are considered a “neuromyth” by the domains of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, which reject the practice of tailoring education to an individual’s preferred learning style in order to increase learning. Believing in learning styles has been compared to believing in fortunetelling in these disciplines.

Then there’s the educational community, where students’ learning styles are still a hot topic and a pedagogical emphasis. Despite the lack of evidence supporting an influence, researchers continue to investigate the notion in response to a growing industry promoting learning-styles tests and therapies to educators.

Even with the cheeky offer of a $5,000 cash reward for anyone who can demonstrate a positive benefit of mixing learning styles into an educational intervention, the proof eludes us year after year.

“It does indeed make sense to speak of students who, in comparison to their peers, have poor visual–spatial ability and strong verbal ability,” wrote cognitive psychologists Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler in a 2012 research review, “but this does not imply that such students will learn anatomy better if their textbook has few diagrams.”

Teachers, on the other hand, are steeped in the mythology of learning styles from the beginning of their education. According to a 2016 research by the National Center on Teacher Quality, 67 percent of teacher-preparation programs required students to include learning styles into lesson planning tasks, while 59 percent of textbooks recommended doing so.

76 percent of the 598 educators polled agreed that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style,” and 71 percent agreed that “children have learning styles that are dominated by particular senses,” according to a 2017 study examining the prevalence of neuromyths.

Even when teachers come across sound science, the prominence given to learning styles in courses and licensure tests muddles such signals. According to Joshua Cuevas, when teachers study educational psychology, textbooks treat the topic with skepticism, pointing out the lack of evidence and cautioning against the adoption of unsupported teaching approaches, unlike general education literature. However, textbooks coordinate their content with conventional licensure tests, resulting in inconsistencies in learning style descriptions.

For example, a passage in the margins of the widely used Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice textbook written by Robert E. Slavin and published by Pearson reads: “Teacher certification tests may ask you to design a lesson that would accommodate students’ various learning styles.” Yet in 2019, an issue of Slavin’s newsletter published by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University stated: “There is no practical utility in knowing students’ learning styles.”

What should instructors believe? It should come as no surprise that the majority of people believe learning styles are significant. Teachers in more than half of the US states are obliged to study learning styles theory as part of their preparation for high-stakes licensure tests.

The Link to Licensure

To determine the scope of the problem, I first evaluated the standards for license and certification to work as an elementary-school teacher in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with the assistance of undergraduate students seeking to become certified teachers.

Then we narrowed our attention to states that require aspiring teachers to pass computer-based standardized exams that assess their understanding of instructional approaches. As a result, our sample was limited to 34 states plus the District of Columbia.

We excluded the 16 states that solely require performance-based or content-based assessments since those tests are unlikely to cover learning styles because they do not explicitly examine pedagogical knowledge.

Then we looked through free, publicly available test-preparation materials to see whether there were any mentions of “learning styles” and if the content recommended for changing courses depending on that notion. In total, 29 states and the District of Columbia now require certified study materials that reference learning styles for elementary certification exams. Click here to view the figure

Almost all of those resources advise for adapting education to fit different learning styles. Only one state, Massachusetts, provides study materials that mention learning styles but don’t make a strong case for their use in the classroom. The word “learning styles” is used in this case to describe a poor reaction to a composing exercise.

There is a lot of overlap in licensure test requirements because some jurisdictions cooperate with big testing companies to deliver the tests. For example, 21 states and the District of Columbia require one or more Praxis Series assessments of instructional expertise, which according to study materials may include questions about learning styles.

In addition, nine jurisdictions mandate state-specific examinations to measure instructional content, with seven of them providing free study tools that promote accommodating different learning styles throughout instruction.

Learning styles are emphasized in varied degrees in the publicly available preparation materials. Several advise using learning styles, as well as necessary information, skill levels, and interests, to distinguish and individualize training.

Others ask specific questions about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning, as well as the instructional approaches that are most suited to kids with various learning styles.

For example, aspiring teachers are asked to “describe some activities that might help students with varying learning styles best learn key concepts” and “give a specific example from your own classroom experience of the effects of differences in learning styles on how people understand and express what they know” in study companions for the various Praxis licensure tests.

The study guide for Oklahoma’s Professional Teaching Examination includes data from a “learning-styles inventory,” which the test taker is asked to analyze, interpret, and quote in a written response.

Misplaced Priorities

So, what should be done when purportedly “right” answers on teacher-licensure exams turn out to be incorrect? Integrating the greatest possible knowledge gathered via empirical study into practice is required for sound professional judgment.

Teachers are experts whose impact on people’s lives cannot be overestimated. It’s vital that they make evidence-based teaching judgments. Several modifications will be required to encourage such behavior.

To begin with, teacher-preparation institutions may be more like medical schools. Programs would be responsible for giving students with the most up-to-date information while highlighting the significance of maintaining current with scientific findings that can impact decision-making under such a model.

Bloodletting, for example, is no longer taught or tested in medical schools since it has been disproved. Similarly, there are no questions concerning bloodletting on board certification tests, which could legitimize a practice that is not only unproductive but also hazardous.

Requiring that teacher-preparation programs and licensing exams satisfy medical-exam criteria for scientific correctness would allow aspiring teachers to concentrate on established teaching methods.

In addition, preparation programs must teach aspiring teachers how to be critical consumers of research. We don’t want our future teachers to accept without question what publishing corporations advertise to them in order to inform instructional decisions, any more than we want doctors to accept without question what pharmaceutical businesses market to them in order to inform treatment decisions.

Failure to take these actions could have serious consequences for teachers and students across the country. Consider another example of a research-practice mismatch: reading education in American schools.

Because the vast majority of instructors are not trained in the science of reading, they rely on common practices and word of mouth to teach reading once they enter the classroom.

As a result, despite considerable evidence showing the way toward a more methodical, effective manner of training, “whole language”-style instruction disguised as “balanced literacy” remains popular. Meanwhile, one out of every three fourth-graders in the United States is unable to read at a basic level.

It’s legitimate to wonder how learning styles theory might be harmful to students. Isn’t it true that aspiring teachers must be able to recognize and accept individual differences as well as comprehend the need of differentiated instruction? Isn’t it true that implementing learning-styles theory into training is incompatible with these fundamental principles?

Teachers shift attention and effort away from instructional practices that are backed by a considerable body of research when they strive to accommodate learning styles that have no empirical evidence.

There are instructional principles and practices for effective learning that are backed by convergent empirical evidence from different fields—practical information that teachers should understand when they first join the classroom. When time is spent analyzing learning styles in training programs, time is not spent addressing proven techniques to improve student learning.

According to a textbook survey conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 59 percent of textbooks did not even mention the six most effective teaching approaches identified by the Institute for Education Statistics more than a decade ago, and just 15% devoted a full page on them.

It was only two books back then, and they only covered two of the six strategies. In the meantime, more than half of textbooks contained information on learning styles. Teachers can learn to assess and differentiate instruction based on individuals’ level of mastery of necessary skills and knowledge—important criteria that actually influence student learning—rather than learning to assess, group, and organize instruction for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Other potentially harmful implications of learning-styles-based instruction, as documented by Daniel Willingham, include the misallocation of teachers’ time and effort. Students have the option to act on their label.

If a student believes she or he has a dominating learning style, she or he may ignore effective learning tactics or even entire courses that she or he believes are more appropriate for a learning type she or he does not believe suits them.

Furthermore, because people may choose which sort of mental processing they utilize, pupils who are told they have a dominant learning style may try to process material in that style even if it isn’t appropriate for the job. In addition, teachers who try to accommodate many learning styles in a session rather than focusing on the most effective ways to convey the material might have a negative impact on student learning by producing cognitive overload.

Coursework Corrections

Educators and administrators of teacher preparation programs should avoid spreading a notion that has a negative impact on student achievement and motivation. However, if they want to maintain high certification rates and help students realize their ambitions of owning their own classrooms, they must adequately prepare candidates for licensure tests.

As a result, until the content of licensure tests more closely reflects evidence-based practice and learning science concepts, teacher educators are left with a less-than-ideal strategy for limiting the damage.

Teacher educators can teach candidates that accommodating student learning styles is not supported by research while stressing evidence-informed instruction through a careful selection of journal articles and textbooks. They can, however, advise their aspiring teachers to overlook scientific facts in order to acquire the “right” response on licensure exams. Some educational psychology textbooks appear to have already gone down this road, which may lead students to doubt the validity of the licensure tests as a whole.

Reviewing the substance of those exams does appear to be necessary. State departments of education could perform a beneficial service by searching the mandatory licensure tests that assess knowledge of instructional methods and deleting topics without a sufficient evidence base, rather than testing students on material with no empirical backing.

Learning-styles theory isn’t the only thing that fits this description—Praxis tests also contain things like Maslow’s hierarchy of requirements, which isn’t backed up by facts.

It is the obligation of both test developers and teacher educators to stay current on learning and teaching research. What they choose to include in course syllabi and on licensure exams is more than a statement about what future teachers should study, according to the field of education. It’s also a statement about how much empirical knowledge is valued in the field.

_William Furey an assistant professor at Manhattan College. _

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