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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  1. How does the myth of learning styles fit with Howard Gardner’s “Frames Of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” Eric Jensen’s research on “Principles of Brain-Based Education” and “Presenting With The Brain In Mind” on purposeful engagement of strategies based on neuroscience, and the Dunn & Dunn Models of “Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles” as well as their learning style assessments? Is there now data from research that says these people’s original research is flawed? Are you saying that these researchers results should not be considered when planning a presentation?

    I totally agree with you that using learning styles as an excuse to cram more text on a slide is the wrong thing to do. However, not having words or visuals for some attendees to see during a presentation is just as wrong in my opinion. There should be a balance of both.

  2. Hi Jeff
    I agree that it is effective to use a variety of styles to present information. But not because of variations in the individual’s learning style. Here’s a quote from an article by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham:
    “Modality of instruction is important, but it is equally important for all students – not more or less important depending on students’ modality preferences.”
    There are lots of other good articles by this author on this site, eg “Brain-based learning: More fiction than fact.” . Olivia

  3. When using a slide show, I try to follow the 10/20/30 approach; and include a lot of images to replace text.

  4. hi Olivia,
    I happened to come across your site while reviewing articles for my thesis Preferred Learning Style in UG students . I came across the link for Pashler’s article on meshing hypotheisis. Thanks a lot for the post. Was very helpful

    Meenakshi Moorjani