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Learning Styles: Myth or Methodical?

The idea of a preferred learning style is common in the UK education system. In fact, a recent study found that 93% of teachers believe learning styles influence how well students do at school. But are educators right to have such confidence in the theory? Here, we weigh up the evidence.

What is a learning style?

Because we absorb, process and retain information differently, many believe that people prefer to learn in various ways. The term 'learning style' refers to the idea that for a student to reach their maximum potential, they need to be taught in such a way that reflects their personal learning preferences. Examples of learning styles include visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (tactile) learning. At school or college, most people take a test that tells them which learning style they fit. After receiving their results, many students - and their teachers - believe they can soak up more information by sticking to the learning style that suits them best.

Who believes that learning styles work?

Scientists have proven that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information is processed in separate parts of the brain. By helping the brain to process diverse types of information, this has led many academics to claim that learning styles provide educational benefits However, critics insist that the effectiveness of learning styles is a 'neuromyth' based on the misunderstanding of scientific facts. Gilmore et al (2007) suggest that because all the structures of the brain are interconnected, it's false to assume only one sensory perception (at a time) is involved with processing information.

Is there any scientific evidence to suggest learning styles work?

In 2009, Harold Pashler and Doug Rohrer's report provided an overview of their quest to find scientific proof that learning styles work. At the outset, they agreed proof that learning styles work would need to provide very specific evidence: the teaching method deemed most effective for students with one learning style being less effective for students with another. After reviewing a vast array of literature on the subject, Pashler and Rohrer concluded that there was very little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of learning styles.

What do other academics say?

In 1986, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed a self-report questionnaire for identifying your preferred learning style from four options: activist, theorist, pragmatist and reflector. By 2004, the number of learning styles cited across related literature totalled 71. Supporters of the theory widely believe that most people fit a combination of two or more learning styles. According to 'Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education', this means there are more possible combinations of learning styles than people living on earth. So, even if learning styles are more fact than fiction, adjusting teaching methods for all possible variations is close to impossible.

Are there any other problems with learning styles?

In 1993, Y H Fung, Angela S P Ho and K P Kwan published a report challenging the validity of Honey and Mumford's self-report questionnaire. They argued that the questionnaire is unreliable because people often display bias when answering the questions; showing a preference for the learning styles they think fit them, rather than the ones that actually do.

Final thoughts

Learning styles remain popular because teachers want to feel like they're tailoring teaching methods to a student's specific needs. However, the lack of scientific evidence, biased self-assessment and the problem of matching teaching methods to the huge number of learning styles raises serious doubts that they work. Overall, there is more evidence to suggest that learning styles are a myth than the other way around. Even so, it's a scientific fact that people process information differently, which means understanding how your mind works can help you get the most out of your ability.

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