The Learning Styles Myth

You may have taken a Learning Style questionnaire at one point. You know – those tests that determine if you’re a visual, physical, aural, verbal, logical, or social learner? Maybe you haven’t taken one of these assessments, but many people take them in hopes of pinpointing their style of learning. These tests are embraced because students desire to become unstoppable learning machines in their chosen college majors. Though the intentions of these tests are inherently good, there is little research to support that learning styles exist in specified groupings. There is also a lack of evidence to support the common practice of designing pedagogy around learning styles. Despite this lack of evidence, programs abound with the learning styles approach to student success. The use of a Learning Styles Assessment is not a guaranteed success for teachers or students.

Dr. Phil Newton, a professor at the Swansea University Medical School, recently wrote about this in a paper he titled, “The Learning Styles myth is thriving in higher education.” He questions why academic institutions so readily embrace the learning style scheme when it doesn’t have a substantial basis of data supporting its mission. Newton even suggests that a focus on learning styles can hinder academic progress and pupil development – primarily because it limits the student from branching out into other areas of growth.

So how does a person learn most effectively without the “learning style” approach? Newton points to neurological research that shows the we learn best when we’re taking it easy, slowing down to learn something new to prevent the overload of information flooding our neural pathways, not giving up, allowing the mind to focus without distraction (i.e. turning off the television and studying in a quiet, distraction free environment), keeping it simple by not worrying about complex jargon and instead focusing on practical examples, and reproducing the most significant applications and principles while practicing basics.  He also specifies that we need to “embrace practice testing”, because it gives effective two-way feedback, and feedback is what drives a lot of  successful learning.

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