No evidence for ‘learning styles’

Identifying children’s “learning style” is a waste of time and money, says a British scientist, Baroness Greenfield. Teachers are being told to question students on whether they prefer to learn through “visual, auditory or kinaesthetic” (Vak) teaching, reports The Telegraph.

Once identified, the teacher will allow a visual child to learn through looking at cartoons, pictures and fast-moving computer programmes. A “kinaesthetic” learner will be allowed to spread their work on the floor, wander round while they are thinking or learn through dance and drama. In some schools, pupils’ desks are even labelled to indicate their learning styles.

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is “nonsense” from a neuroscientific point of view: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together — the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person’s lips — that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

“The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak, or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits.”

Of course, the idea of teaching to various learning styles originated in the U.S. It’s why your kids spend more time designing posters than writing essays.

Via Education Gadfly.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    A large part of the motivation to promote learning styles, modalities, multiple intelligences, etc. seems to come from the self-worth movement. Children are taught that if they have trouble with school, it’s not due to differences in experience or overall intelligence, it’s because the teacher is not correctly applying the material to the specific learning style for the child. Every child supposedly, of course, has one learning style that they excel at, and can therefore feel worthwhile.

  2. I will also add to your last point that posters are much less time consuming to grade (and often to produce) than essays, which isn’t so much a good reason but a very practical reason they get assigned.

    But please remember when dealing with an individual teacher, the culture and expectations for this nonsense may be beyond the individual’s control. If teaching to different learning styles is what the evaluators say they think is good teaching, it’s what you are going to do whether you really buy in or not.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I have found that different learning styles come in to play with memorizing Latin endings…

    The visual learners do fine looking at flashcards and occasionally copying things out….

    The audio learners NEED to chant and do their flashcards out loud….

    And the kinetic learners like to walk while they memorize….

    So I’d say that while trying to create a classroom that works for everyone is an exercise in futility, in my experience helping students recognize their learning style WILL help them figure out how to study more efficiently when they’re at home….. Whether this is the teacher’s job or the parents’ is another question…..

  4. david foster says:

    Even if these “learning styles” do exist, it seems important for people to develop the styles that are *not* most natural to them, rather than simply being reinforced in their preferences.

    Let’s say that you are a kinaesthetic learner and want to be a mechanic. You will find that you have to read manuals–somre of which are very complex–requiring visual learning skills. You will likely also need auditory skills, both for listening for problem symptoms and for understanding customer complaints and manufacturer training seminars.

    Not everything in life can be accomplished by following the paths of least resistance.

  5. Miller Smith says:

    I compared two learning style inventories in my master’s thesis research to see how each test measured and catagorized the various learning styles. I compared the Kolb Learning Style Inventory and the National Association of Secondary School Principals Learning Style Inventory (NASSP). The school system I was working for, Sullivan County Public Schools in Tennessee had spent a considerable amount of money on the NASSP test and administered to all students.

    I got copies of 500 student NASSP tests from the school records and administered the Kolb to all of them. I them ran correlational coefficents comparing all domains in each test to each other in hope to better match up the terms each test had.

    There was not a single significant correlation between the tests. None.

    To see people talk about visual or auditory learners is a very sad thing to see in education professionals.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    But running such studies is more fun than actual teaching, isn’t it?

  7. Walter Wallis,

    What’s the point of your quip; I don’t get it.

    I wouldn’t think that anyone who found running studies more fun that actual teaching would stay in the classroom very long, do you?

    Was your point to praise teachers for taking on the harder or less satisfying load?

    Miller Smith,

    But if you are teaching in that district and you’re supposed to use the inventory and reflect its results in your lessons, especially now that the district spent the taxpayer’s money on it, well, it’s worse than sad, isn’t it?

    I get sick of having to listen to administrators refer to what the research has shown on various topics when they are referring to old and perhaps unscientific studies that benefit them (my personal fav. involves teachers and effective discipline*), but they watch them ignore the data right in front of them if it doesn’t suit the current agenda.

    *Every year, at least once, our entire faculty gets a superficial quote from one study that I’ve never actually seen or heard referred to by name that shows that effective teachers handle their own discipline in the classroom. Well, yeah, that sounds about right; if you are effective, you’re usually effective at all levels. But it doesn’t change the fact that if you have a situation that you can’t resolve yourself, an assistant principal withholding assistance doesn’t make you more effective, which is kind of the context in which they quote the study; “Too many discipline referrals; you all need to be more effective and retain your authority.” If we had actually had the authority, we wouldn’t be writing the referrals. But the study allows them to shift their failure with discipline back onto us.

  8. In the learning disabilities (LD) field in the 1970s, learning styles was supposed to be the “answer” to why students had a LD and how to teach them. In my masters level work, I was “indoctrinated” using the learning styles mantra–use an inventory (remember the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities?) to find the style, teach to the style (strength), and strengthen the weak style. However, there was NO empirical evidence to support the styles theory. The evidence is very clear–matching instruction to a student’s so-called style does NOT result in improved achievement. By 1980, even the LD field, a field that has done very little correctly in its brief history, dropped the styles theory and moved on to other things.

    In my current research in learning a foreign language (FL), I have found that the FL field has become enamored with styles theory in its attempts to teach FLs to students. However, there is no evidence that matching styles to teaching method is helpful in teaching a foreign language.

    It is very frustrating that even though we know the styles theory is wrong, I have to take time in my college classes to present the evidence that debunks the theory. Why? Because most professors of psychology and education still teach students that the theory is correct and that they should match their instruction to students’ styles. The current chair of my department is an enthusiastic advocate and tells me that no one would flunk my classes if I would just adapt my instruction to the students’ styles (sigh).


  9. There was not a single significant correlation between the tests. None.

    I recall Joanne highlighting an article some time ago that showed the vast majority of educational “studies” were not even close to actually being scientific.

    Last year, I had quite an argumentative tit-for-tat with my principal over the nature of “studies” he favored. I merely queried as to whether they were actually scientific. He got quite perturbed, but I persisted. I never did get an answer other than his insistence that the studies were scientific. He promised to show me proof; it never came my way, however.

  10. Warning – This comment involves math.

    There has been considerable research regarding the effectiveness of
    the Rule of Four in math instruction. This approach suggests that new
    concepts be presented using the following representations or
    modalities (some of this gets a bit technical but bear with me):
    1) Concrete numerical representation: 3^2 (read 3-squared) > 3 but
    (1/2)^2 < 1/2 2) Verbal representation of a concept: The square of a positive number greater than one is _______________ while the square of a positive number less than 1 (e.g., a proper fraction) is _______________ 3) Graphical representation: Compare the graphs of y = x^2 and y = x 4) Symbolic representation x^2 > x if x>1; x^2 < x if 0

  11. Miller Smith says:

    “But running such studies is more fun than actual teaching, isn’t it?” You bet Walter! Well…actually…I ran the study while teaching. That’s how I got access to 500 students and their records.

    It was pitiful Walter. This school system in Sullivan County was heavily invested in “Learning Styles” to the point of spending huge amounts of money on expensive computer scored tests for every single student in the system AND creating Learning Style Labs AND putting carpet on evey classrooom with a bean bag so kids whose learning style was to kick back could have their LS in the classroom too.

    My thesis professor told me, when we finished my research and it was getting bound for inclusion in the college library, that the results would upset lots of people as many careers were invested in LS as being a real quality that, if properly used, would increase the academic attainment of the children. I had shown that it was pretty much the same as astrology.

    When you start school again this year, find at least two LSIs you trust and administer them to your students. Compare the results. Then wait a month and do it again. This is what you WILL find: LSs are completely unstable. The “visual” learner of today becomes the “auditory” a month later. Not only that, but the two LSIs won’t even argee at to WHAT a student is.

    Seriously. Do the experiment. No BS. I’ve done it and presented it as research using mathematical analysis. It will be an eye-openning experience.

    Then an intervening variable will pop up and you will discover that the modality of the CONTENT determines the modality of the lesson presentation NOT any illusory learning style of the students.

  12. Instead of asking, What is your sign?, a new conversation starter could be, What’s your learning style? Both belong to he realm of pseudo-science.

  13. So now everybody is smart in some way, even those that can’t read or write. –John Leo

    A good critique of MI, its idiocy and the damage it causes, e.g., wasted time, can be found here:

    Read about the demand for odor-based curricula by parents of nasal learners here:

  14. “My daughter doesn’t do well with blah blah blah curriculum because she’s a nasal learner.” The way parents approach this topic gives the impression that their child has a learning disability rather than a “learning style.” I have sympathy for parents whose children can’t use run of the mill math or science programs because of a “learning style.”

    Along with the many different learning styles, I look forward to the recognition of the older category of intellectual learner.

  15. I strongly agree with Deirdre and Dave. I’m not arguing that teaching should occur in one style or another, and certainly I don’t think that a test will reveal everything about a learning preference. I also profoundly disagree with the strong emphasis on kinesthetic projects that substitutes for knowledge these days.

    That said, there’s absolutely no question that we all prefer to intake information in different ways, and that with some students this preference is so strong as to actively interfere with their learning if they don’t know about it. This is particularly true with kinesthetic learners, which is why the US (wrongly) placed so much emphasis on it.

    I’ve worked with many, many students that simply can’t easily comprehend abstracts and need concrete data to understand. I’ve also seen stunning gaps based on this inability. Just yesterday, I was tutoring a young man in working through a word problem. He was having trouble expressing “the second number is 3 more than twice the first”, even though he came up with 5 and 13 as representative numbers a split second after reading the text. He can solve word problems with a calculator, guessing and estimating brilliantly until he’s figured out the correct numbers, but he can’t manage the algebra. When I convinced him to draw out a geometry word problem, he solved it instantly, after several minutes of staring at the word problem blankly. His ACT math test score was 23, an impressive score for a kid that flunked a semester of Geometry, because he was able to get answers anyway he liked.

    So while I completely agree with the criticism of the lousy implementation, the parental excuses, and the over-specific tests, there’s really no question that strong learning preferences can interfere with education, if the student and teacher mismatch. I don’t think any solution exists, but that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t.

  16. GradSchoolMom says:

    Even as you all blog that teaching to learning styles is wrong, I’m sure you agree that we all learn differently. If teachers believe that there is only one right way to teach, only certain learners will succeed. This has been the case for years. Now, however, we are faced with NCLB and the academic underachievers can no longer be directed to a trade. Either we have to accept that everyone cannot learn everything and teach the way that works for the majority or we have to figure out how the students who do not read and calculate easily do learn. We cannot teach only one way and expect everyone – gifted to mentally challenged – to succeed.

  17. As part of my college teaching curriculum, I researched a paper on the effectiveness of learning styles. I wasn’t able to find one (statistically significant) paper which showed a long-term effect. I suspect that short term effects show up because the instructor’s enthusiasm about ‘teaching to learning styles’ inspires an enthusiastic reaction in her/his students.

  18. In a review of research on learning styles, Stahl (Different Strokes for Different Folks) compares styles to fortune telling. The lack of peer-reviewed, scientific research to support the notion of styles supports his position. Can’t the education field move on to more productive research that has the potential to improve students’ learning? Emphasis on nonsense such as learning styles just causes embarrassment to the field and tells others that it is not a serious field of study.

  19. It’s interesting that Joanne Jacobs’ blog is highlighted as one where both sides of a subject are argued. Upon reading her brief critique of learning styles, many questions come to mind. First, if teaching to different learning styles is ineffective, why does ACSD publish a book called, “So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences.” Second, Jacobs cites a British authority, pharmacologist Baroness Greenfield as saying that the notion of children being genetically predisposed to learning through “sight, sound or touch” as their main modality is simply not founded. Ok, maybe children are not genetically “predisposed” to learn through one modality easier than another; many people report being more flexible and able to integrate better than others. However, all it takes is one week in kindergarten to see that each child has his own “learning style”; some children exhibit a more combined, integrated approach than others. Perhaps the fact that this “style” is ascertained through a pencil/paper inventory, which is an ironic way to assess styles in my opinion, accounts for some of the research “inconclusiveness”. It is ridiculous in this case, to throw out the idea of using a multiple modality approach to teaching because we know it works in helping kids input new material and link it to what they already know. If using a kinesthetic activity helps some of my students solidly grasp a concept, after which I use a visual modality to teach the concept again on the white board, and my students are engaged, active learners,what seems to be the problem? I cannot assess my students through their preferred modality, of course so I also teach them the strategies to report that knowledge in a traditional way, like through writing or a math test. One of the problems with all of this arguing about learning styles, in my opinion, is that we are looking at it in a black and white way. We are educating whole, complex children who ultimately have to thrive and perform in a world where reading and writing are the arena where they must succeed if they are to progress to higher levels of education. Using a variety of teaching approaches and modalities helps kids find “their” best ways of input. When, further along in their schooling, they are confused about information told to them in a lecture, they might remember, “Oh yes, maybe I should try to draw it out! It worked for me before!” The fact that they “learn about how they learn”, using metacognitive skills, is a valuable tool in life. Understanding that individuals learn differently does not mean we are trying to shamelessly promote self-worth or protect precious self-esteem. It means we want to take any and all possible paths to helping “all” of our students learn. Just because a scientist cannot document “proof” of a biological basis for learning styles, or cannot do a research project that can “prove” that understanding the minds of our students helps us in teaching them does not mean that we abandon methods we see working each day in the classroom. As others in their replies have stated, it does not help us to cite extreme examples of students “dancing their answers” or making posters instead of writing papers to get to the truth. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The man who can make hard things easy is the educator.” As an educator, my job is to make the concepts come alive so that my students can find the genius within themselves.

  20. Even as you all blog that teaching to learning styles is wrong, I’m sure you agree that we all learn differently.


    And even if everyone agreed that learning styles exist and have an effect on learning what difference would that make?

    If you think so then you’ve got a hypothesis. Go forth and construct an experiment or make some predictions that your hypothesis informs. If your hypothesis does some nice predicting then, huzzah! you won’t have to bother with consensim. You’ll have the juice.

    The beef is that the proponents of learning styles prefer to build consensus to determining the truth. That may be fine if you believe that the consensus is the truth but not everyone is that willing to surrender their credulity. Believing, as highly regarded as it is in some circles, doesn’t make the tide rise.

  21. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I’ve noticed that a lot of the “learning style” quizzes seem to demand accurate self-reporting — could part of their problem be that they require more self-knowledge than your average 4th grader posesses?

    Has anyone tried administering them to the parents instead?

    i.e. “Your child understands best when…..”
    or “Your child understands instructions best when…”

    In the elementary grades, parents may actually have a better idea of what their child is like than their child does……

  22. This is a rather reductionist view of the research literature.

    Neuroscience does support differentiated learning patterns, and has done so for about a decade. In The Telegraph’s typical sensationalist style, the emphasis is not on research findings but rather on opinions. It is painted with a broad and inflamatory brushstroke. The “learning styles” noted are not the “learning styles” that emerge from neuroscience.

    The Baroness is a brilliant scientist, and has a fantastic gift for putting complex ideas into comprehensible explanations. The Telegraph’s reporting of her observations, however, lacks context. Asking a kid if he prefers to listen, draw, or act out a scene is not the same thing as using established cognitive learning patterns to help teach a kid. The Baroness is known to be in favor of the latter, and wrote extensively on the subject in her book.

    There is a big difference between “learning styles” picked by a kid and “learning styles” based on observing a kid.

    Here in Silicon Valley, the number of students exhibiting the Austism spectrum has been variously predicted to range from 1 in 10 to 3 in ten. The spectrum includes Asperger’s as well as a variety of autistic expressions. Some people with this genetic pattern demonstrate hyperlexia. Many think in pictures rather than words. Often, these people focus on a single aspect of something rather than comprehending the big picture. With a classroom containing 30 students, you may have 9 kids who understanding something more readily if it is first shown in a graphic format. Similarly, these kids can often express an idea through a graphic form more quickly than they can through spoken or written words. That goes along with thinking in pictures. They may work best by looking at an image, reading silently, and then ending with an oral discussion (their weakest area). They benefit from “picture notes” during lectures. Interactive Notebooks work well for them.

    In contrast, one of the recent reading patterns that is emerging is that students with violent home environments often suppress visualization as a survival mechanism (similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome survivors). These kids train themselves to rely on auditory input. They shut out visuals. They also forcibly reduce active engagement with the external world (not unlike Autism’s pattern). The bottom line is that they can read words on a page, but they do not make mental movies of what they read. They avoid that visualization process, and have conditioned themselves to do that. Frequently, low socioeconomic backgrounds and visualization suppression go hand in hand.

    These kids have to be taught to mentally picture what they read. Lindamood-Bell strategies help there. These kids have a terrible time with reading comprehension, as you may well imagine. In inner city schools with high poverty levels, as many as two thirds of a class may suffer from this problem. These kids may need to hear the story read aloud to them while they wrestle with drawing pictures of the events in the story. They then follow that with reading the story for themselves. Finally, they may be ready to write about the story after a third silent reading. That sequence plays to their strengths.
    It also means the class moves MUCH more slowly than a class where the students do not have this issue.

    There is then a third situation here in the Valley that overlaps with both of the above conditions. A kid may be wrestling with a second language, and he or she may have a very weak command of his or her first language. It is pretty common to find city kids here who don’t know a wide range of adjectives and verbs in either their native languages or in English. Up to seventy percent of my classroom has fallen into this category at times. Often, these kids also suffer from a lack of visualization skills as mentioned above. Some of them may have never been outside of the downtown area. They may never have smelled the ocean, even though it is a twenty minute drive away.

    Their oral vocabularies are very limited, but even those are more extensive than their written vocabularies. It is not uncommon to find that the parents of these kids are functionally illiterate in both English and the native language that is spoken in the home. When working with new vocabulary terms with these kids, it is often best to begin by having them “act out” or watch a dramatization of a term. They see it first, then they hear it, then they write about it. The cycle is repeated several times. A month later, these kids will have a far better recall of the term than their peers. That is kinesthetic learning.

    Unfortunately, it is also as slow as molasses. The biggest things holding these kids back are a lack of vocabulary and the inability to retain information through visualization. They may be five or six grade levels behind in reading.

    Teachers have to see beyond the surface level to perceive what might be happening when the kid thinks. If “visual learning” or “auditory learning” or “tactile learning” surfaces as the best way to help a kid get an idea, then it should be used. It isn’t selected because the kid likes to draw pictures. It is used to help the kid get the information into his or her brain through a style that “sticks”.

  23. Well said Chris! I think you make some critical points while giving “real life” appropriate examples. It’s seems to be difficult for some to understand the complex realities of the classroom situation. We are talking about children coming to us with a multitude of issues and our approach must be multifaceted. Those of us “in the trenches” have thousands of “real life” experiences that mold our teaching and hopefully improve our ability to meet the needs of our students. Thank you for those examples.

  24. Children with hyperlexia think in words, not pictures. They often are very early readers.

    I’ve followed this issue to some degree because my nephew has Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism), including some hyperlexic patterns. He learns exceptionally well via words but needed special classes to learn how to interpret faces. He did well in high school — except when asked to write about himself — and aced his SATs. He’s now at a UC majoring in computer science.

    Special ed enrollments in Silicon Valley don’t reflect an estimate that 10 to 30 percent of students are on the autism spectrum. If you mean that quite a few Silicon Valley kids are nerds with poor social skills, well, that’s true.

  25. I’m glad to be out of the school system and educating my children at home because I don’t have to wrap my brain around the concept of having to make a child learn anything in anyway or in one specific way. I find it ridiculous to hear friends tell me of incidences where the local school is requiring their children to “learn” using visual, etc/right brained methods when their children do not learn that way and visa versa, which is usually the case. You cannot apply a one way of learning to a human being and expect it to work smoothly unless you get (they get) lucky, and it does, or unless they are adaptive like I was in school and learn how to manipulate the system without truly learning a thing. It’s all hocus pocus until you know the person you are trying to help learn and get real with them and yourself on what you are expecting from them and what they want from you. As long as teaching is impersonal and top down as opposed to personal and cooperative, it’s all a game (unfortunately with life long side effects for some or many according to how you choose to look at it).. winners and losers and those how learn to get by.

  26. I just wanted to repeat something Dave said above:

    “In summary, experienced educators take learning styles into account by
    using a variety of instructional modalities.”

    Whether or not there are specific, inherent styles or styles that change or styles that are different for different types of learning, the key is that a good educator will present material in several different ways and will note which are most successful, either for individuals or for the class as a whole.

    A variety of instructional modalities. Not an all visual or an all anything classroom.


  1. […] Joanne Jacobs. Julie Henry, The Telegraph August 3, 2007 [原文链接] [标签: Learning Styles] [ […]

  2. […] Jeanne-Marie’s paper had nothing to do with neuroscience, as it turned out, except for the one sentence in which she claimed that neuroscientific research (she gave no citation) supported her findings. Her paper was about “modes of learning” (the currently fashionable term is “learning styles”). […]

  3. […] and data, the Baroness may find herself losing support in the education community. Check out the instructive array of comments [25-30] on this issue at Joanne Jacobs’ site. Commenter Dierdre Mundy relays the following: […]