Being-taught habits vs learning styles

In case the news has not got through to anyone yet, research into learning styles is pointless. The research that proves this is legion but, for instance, see (for just a tiny sample of the copious and damning evidence):

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The Myth of Learning Styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32-35. doi:doi: 10.1080/00091383.2010.503139

Derribo, M. H., & Howard, K. (2007). Advice about the use of learning styles: A major myth in education. Journal of college reading and learning, 37, 2.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. 041543).

No one denies that it is possible to classify people in all sorts of ways with regards to things that might affect how they learn, nor that everyone is different, nor that there are some similarities and commonalities between how people prefer to or habitually go about learning. When these elaborately constructed theories claim no more than that people are different in interesting and sometimes identifiably consistent ways, then I have little difficult accepting them in principle, though it’s always worth observing that there are well over 100 of these theories and they cannot all be right. There is typically almost nothing in any of them that could prove them wrong either. This is a hallmark of pseudo-science and should set our critical sensors on full alert. The problem comes when the acolytes of whatever nonsense model is their preferred flavour try to take the next step and tell us that this means we should teach people in particular ways to match their particular learning styles. There is absolutelly no plausible evidence that knowing someone’s learning style, however it is measured, should have any influence whatsoever on how we should teach them, apart from the obvious requirement that we should cater for diversity and provide multiple paths to success. None. This is despite many decades spent trying to prove that it makes a difference. It doesn’t.

It is consequently a continual source of amazement to me when people pipe up in conversations to say that we should consider student learning styles when designing courses and learning activities. Balderdash. There is a weak case to be made that, like astrology (exactly like astrology), such theories serve a useful purpose of encouraging people to reflect on what they do and how they behave. They remind teachers to consider the possibility that there might be more than one way to learn something and so they are more likely to produce useful learning experiences that cater for diverse needs, to try different things and build flexibility into their teaching. Great – I have no objection to that at all, it’s what we should be aiming for. But it would be a lot more efficient to simply remind people of that simple and obvious fact rather than to sink vast sums of money and human resources into perpetuating these foolish myths. And there is a darker side to this. If we tell people that they are (just a random choice) ‘visual’, or  ‘sensing’ or ‘intuitive’ or ‘sequential’ learners then they will inevitably be discouraged from taking different approaches. If we teach them in a way that we think fits a mythical need, we do not teach them in other ways. This is harmful. It is designed to put learners in a filter bubble. The worst of it is that learners then start to believe it themselves and ignore or undervalue other ways of learning.

Being-taught habits

The occasion for this rant came up in a meeting yesterday, where it was revealed that a surprising number of our students describe their learning style (by which they actually mean their learning preference) to be to listen to a video lecture. I’m not sure where to begin with that. I would have been flabbergasted had I not heard similar things before. Even learning style believers would have trouble with that one. One of the main things that is worth noting, however, is that this is actually a description not of a learning preference but of a ‘being-taught habit’. Not as catchy, but that’s what it is.

I have spent much of my teaching career not so much teaching as unteaching: trying to break the appalling habits that our institutional education systems beat into us until we come to believe that the way we are being taught is actually a good way to learn. This is seldom the case – on the whole, educational systems have to achieve a compromise between cost-efficiency and effective teaching –  but, luckily, people are often smart enough to learn despite poor teaching systems. Indeed, sometimes, people learn because of poor teaching systems, inasmuch as (if they are interested and have not had the passion sucked out of them) they have to find alternative ways to learn, and so become more motivated and more experienced in the process of learning itself. Indeed, problem-based and enquiry-based techniques (which are in principle a good idea) sometimes intentionally make use of that kind of dynamic, albeit usually with a design that supports it and offers help and guidance where needed.

If nothing else, one of the primary functions of an educational system should be to enable people to become self-directed, capable lifelong learners. Learning the stuff itself and gaining competence in a subject area or skill in doing something is part of that – we need foundations on which to build. But it is at least as much about learning ways of learning. There are many many ways to learn, and different ways work better for different people learning different things. We need to be able to choose from a good toolkit and use approaches that work for the job in hand, not that match the demands of some pseudo-scientific claptrap.

Rant over.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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