Are Visual Learners Disadvantaged in Classrooms? More on Learning Style Myths

“I am a very visual learner so I do not learn well in classes with a lot of lecture.”

After having taught for over 25 years I hear variations of that comment a lot. In conversations with students I have heard a range of complaints. Teachers who only use one teaching style. Teachers who do not provide ‘hands on’ learning opportunities. Teachers who talk a lot who do not show pictures, diagrams, and figures.  With the start of schools around America this month, many students are wondering what their teachers will be like?  Will teachers’ styles fit preferred learning styles? Does it matter?

Apparently, if you ask the majority of K-12 teachers, the answer is a resounding YES.  Does the research bear this out?  A resounding NO.

Here is the bottom line: While we all may have preferences for how we like to experience new material and interact with it (aka learn), we do not have to be taught in a style that matches those preferences.

While it may seem like commonsense to assume that we learn better when taught in a style that matches our preferences, there is no scientific evidence to back this up.  Yet, this belief if widely held. In a recent study, Ulrich Boser of the Learning Agency, sent out a survey to 515 educators using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.  A little under half responded to a brief survey of beliefs about educational practices.  The results were shocking to any academic informed about learning science.

A whopping number of educators endorsed educational myths. For example, 77% of the educators believed we are left-brained or right-brained [REALITY: while our brain is specialized for different functioning the “You are so right-brained” has NO scientific basis].   The biggest offender?   Nearly ALL the educators -97%, endorsed catering to  students learning styles to guide design of instruction!

Researchers in cognitive and educational science have repeatedly tried to knock this idea down but it persists. A large part of the reason may be because we all have preferences for how we like to learn. We mistakenly believe these preferences are important.  I first noted this over 11 years ago. Claudia Rinaldi and I assessed the learning styles preference of forty-five students and divided them into groups based on their learning preference. Each group then completed 4 assignments each highlighting one of four learning preferences (auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic). Group scores on each assignment showed that designing assignments to match students’ learning styles does not lead to better performance but active learning positively relates to overall learning. Scores on the auditory and tactile assignments were significantly different, but not in the hypothesized direction (i.e., auditory learners did not perform best on the auditory assignment). Nonetheless, students preferred assignments that matched their particular learning styles (Rinaldi & Gurung, 2008).

Of course that is one study with a small sample size you say. Indeed.  Here is what really convinces me to not worry about meshing teaching style with learning.  Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork conducted a significant review of the research and found NO EVIDENCE that learning styles and teaching styles meshing was important (Read it here). This major 2009 publication has been supported and replicated many times over the last ten years. Yet, the results of Boser (2019) released this week show beliefs persist.

So if you hear a student complain, be armed with this knowledge: Learning is improved when teachers use a variety of styles and in fact, being taught in a style different from your preference may even help you learn more!!

This is one of the most pervasive myths about learning. Even in higher education we are surrounded by many buzzwords to foster instruction. We need to be cognizant of the research testing efficacy and effectiveness of practices before we launch into them. Not sure what’s been tested?  That’s where your local Center for Teaching and Learning can come in handy.

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