Unlearning the Learning Styles

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Some researchers claim that learners can be distinguished into three broad categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, or what one might call seers, hearers, and doers. Does this hypothesis of different learning styles for different types of people hold any water?

An abstract symbol of an electronic chip with the text "Deep Learning" showcasing the conceptual model of learning.
There is a common belief that there are three sets of learners, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, but this broad categorization has been put to test by some researchers.
(Image: Connect world/Shutterstock)

The Three Ways of Learning

For perhaps the last 30 or 40 years, there has been an idea percolating around the education departments of schools and universities that emphasizes learning styles or different ways in which different students learn. While actual models often involve more specific things, some researchers claim that learners can be distinguished into visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methodologies, or what one might call seers, hearers, and doers.

Eye, ear, and hand showcasing three  different styles of learning.
Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic are the three main learning styles. (image: Jeremyah/Shutterstock)

The basic idea is that different people learn better when the information is presented to them in a specific way. For example, some learners are better at taking in information when they can see it, like on a blackboard or a computer screen. The idea goes on further to state that when visual learners are told information, they are at a disadvantage compared to auditory learners. Following this logic, people who prefer to hear information will do well in a class in which information is spoken and not written.

The kinesthetic learners are the types that like to work with their hands. They can be told about the right way to do things or they can read books, but until they do it themselves, with their own hands, they cannot internalize the information.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Checking the Veracity of the Learning Styles: Logic

Now one may wonder whether the claim about specific types of learners is false. For instance, there are certain things that one has to see to learn. For example, mathematics is extremely dense, it is able to make jumps from line to line that would take a paragraph to describe if words were used.

On the other hand, hearing stories and appreciating them is just fine for most people. A person does not have to read them even though they may read them many times faster than they hear them. So, then, what about the learning styles?

Perhaps, it is easy to buy into claims that sound good. For instance, some people might be enormous supporters of the learning style idea. And it is okay for them to react that way, but even this subject, which resonates with people as being true, does not seem to be validated by the data.

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Checking the Veracity of the Learning Styles: Empirical Data

So, what does the data say? Well, the data says that learning styles are not real. The experiment concluding this data started out with a mixed population of people of all sorts. This group of people was then given a test to identify different sets of learners, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

This three-category classification system is a simple one. But, any other type of learning style models could have been picked to test with nearly similar results. In any event, people were given a test to organize themselves into different learning styles that the supposed model required.

An image of a classroom with desks and a green-board.
The learning style classroom experiment proved that specific ways of breaking up the learners does not help. (Image: Olekasandr Berezko/Shutterstock)

These people were then randomly assigned to different classrooms where each classroom emphasized one style over the other, meaning in one classroom, it was mostly reading; in another classroom, it was mostly listening; and in the third classroom, it was all hands-on.

Before they entered the classroom, their mastery of the subject being taught in the classroom was tested. They were then taught in predominantly one type of learning method before being tested on how well they learned this new material.

And what was found was a little surprising. No matter what type of learner was isolated, there was no connection between how much they learned and in what kind of classroom they learned it from. If learning style were a real thing, presumably, the type of classroom would have mattered. Visual learners would have learned more and better in visual classrooms, and so on. But that was not how it went. There was no effect.

These studies do not necessarily mean that learning styles are wrong. The study only tested whether specific ways of breaking up the learners helped. Nevertheless, it certainly does make it look like the learning style idea is a fad that will not survive in the future.

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Common Questions about Unlearning the Learning Styles

Q: What are the three types of learning styles?

The three types of common learning styles are: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Q: What are the different styles of learning?

There are many different styles of learning, but the most common ones are visual or spatial style, aural or auditory-musical style, verbal or linguistic style, physical or kinesthetic style, logical or mathematical style, social or interpersonal style, and solitary or intrapersonal style.

Q: What is meant by a learning style?

A learning style or an individual learner type refers to the preferential way in which a student absorbs, processes, comprehends, and retains different kinds of information. The learning style of a person often depends upon cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors, as well as someone’s prior experience. So, in many ways, it is different for every individual.

Q:What does it mean to be a kinesthetic learner?

Kinesthetic learners like to work with their hands. They can be told about the right way to do things or they can read books, but until they do it themselves, they cannot internalize the information.

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