The myth of learning styles

Many presenters have heard about learning styles and want to know how they can take individual learning styles into account when they present. But the learning styles model has no research that backs it up:

“from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense”. (Susan Greenfield, specialist in brain physiology, quoted in The Times Educational Supplement, 27 July 2007).

But it still sticks around. Today I was a participant on a course where I was subjected to a “learning styles” test. Here’s just one example.  I was asked when buying a gift did I prefer to buy:

  • books
  • music; or
  • tools and gadgets.

If I ticked the book column - it was coded as visual, music as auditory, and tools and gadgets as kinesthetic. As Susan Greenfield says – this is nonsense.

As a result of the learning styles model, many presenters believe that they need to present information in different ways to suit different people. This idea by itself doesn’t do much harm, as research does show that we all benefit from taking in information both visually and aurally. But many people misunderstand what visual means. They believe that visual includes reading words. And they use this to justify putting wordy bullet-points on their PowerPoint slides.

Just because words enter the brain through our eyes (visually) does not mean that they are processed visually. As Richard Mayer explains, words are processed in the verbal channel of our brain. So if we’re also listening to a speaker, the verbal channel will be overloaded:

John Medina in his book, Brain Rules, has a good section on the difference between text and images “When it comes to memory, researchers have known for more than 100 years that pictures and text follow very different rules.” See more at the book’s website.

So please, don’t use learning styles as an excuse for bullet-point slides.

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