Learning Styles Reviewed by Association for Psychological Science AND FOUND WANTING.

,

The Association of Psychological Science commissioned a review of the evidence for the benefits of using learning styles, and the report is clear.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. (p. 105)

Research Citation:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R.
(2008).
Learning styles: Concepts and evidence.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

You can access the article by clicking here.

You can access Richard Mayer’s nice intro to the article—which stresses the benefits of research—by clicking here.

My $1,000 Learning Styles Challenge

Three and one half years ago I offered $1,000 to any person or group who could demonstrate the benefits of learning styles in a real-world practical training program. No one has collected the money yet.

Here was the challenge:

Can an e-learning program that utilizes learning-style information
outperform an e-learning program that doesn’t utilize such information
by 10% or more on a realistic test of learning, even it is allowed to
cost up to twice as much to build?

You can access my original Learning Styles Challenge by clicking here.

You can access my three-year update on the challenge by clicking here.

Final Nail in the Coffin of Learning Styles?

Is this excellent research review by some of the most highly-respected researchers in the learning-research field a final nail in the coffin of learning styles?

Well, as a researcher I must always maintain openness to new information. Perhaps someday more research will demonstrate some specific benefits to learning styles. As the authors of the review say themselves:

Although we have argued that the extant data do not provide support for the learning-styles hypothesis, it should be emphasized that we do not claim that the same kind of instruction is most useful in all contexts and with all learners. An obvious point is that the optimal instructional method is likely to vary across disciplines. For instance, the optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual–spatial materials. Of course, identifying the optimal approach for each discipline is an empirical question, and we espouse research using strong research methods to identify the optimal approach for each kind of subject matter.

Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another. One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student. There is, however, a great gap from such heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations—whose reality we do not dispute—to the notion that presently available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Perhaps future research may demonstrate such linkages, but at present, we find no evidence for it. (p. 116)

As a consultant in the workplace learning-and-performance field, I will likely do my clients harm if I advised for the use of a learning-style learning design. I will continue to advise clients against designing their learning based on learning styles. At the same time, I will encourage them to be watchful for specific learning needs of individual learners. For example, when a learner is confused, he or she probably needs feedback and guidance.

I recommend that you read the article and Mayer’s introduction. Both provide wisdom about how to think about research and how to avoid being fooled.

Article Note: The date in the article and on the database PsycINFO says the article is from 2008. However, the
copyright is from 2009 and the article includes citations from 2009 and
the article appears as the “current article” on the APS (Association for
Psychological Science) website, and news reports just started surfacing in December 2009 and January 2010. The evidence suggests the article just recently came out.

25 replies
  1. Dr. Lauren Keinath
    Dr. Lauren Keinath says:

    Thank you! This is a great validation for me.
    I have for years been telling my students (pre-service teachers and college instructors) that learning styles research is NOT conclusive, and doesn’t provide prescriptive value for the classroom. This has shocked many. sigh.
    I do still stress the benefit of using a *variety* of types of exercises/assignments/assessments — for the very reasons you mention here.

  2. Chris Reich
    Chris Reich says:

    Great post. We seem to want to ignore that people learn at different rates and have different capacities. Simply, in any group some will be smarter.
    I learned long ago that some people don’t comprehend everything taught and it’s not my failure—teaching to the lowest common denominator as many educators do, only reduces what can be learned by the brighter students who, ultimately, will use the material taught.
    Chris Reich
    http://www.TeachU.com

  3. Tomas Lund
    Tomas Lund says:

    Great Post Will. I do agree that Learning Styles are too simplistic in their view on learning. But here is some food for thought, which this comment also elude to: “One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student.”.
    In Denmark TV2 did an experiment in 2008 with Gauerslund Skole (a “normal” Danish Public School) where they applied Learning Styles throughout the school for classroom training. Immediate Tests showed real results in Student Scores, and follow-up tests that the high scores were retained a year later.
    A key concept in the Various Learning styles approaches: that different people learn in different ways – is probably the real reason behind these improvements. One could say that despite the bad science behind Learning Styles it is producing some real results in this case. One thing is classroom training where the Learning Styles concept made the Teachers and Student change their behavior which in turn resulted in better results. Another is elearning where student response to stimuli is very hard to measure correctly and I don’t think anyone will win you Learning Styles Challenge anytime soon.

  4. Bill Brantley
    Bill Brantley says:

    This quote from the article should be tattooed on the forehead of every training consultant working today:
    “There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how
    they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead
    people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal
    ways. This fact makes it clear that research—not intuition
    or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for
    upgrading teaching and learning. If education is to be transformed
    into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to
    identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but
    also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made
    by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support.”

  5. Guy Boulet
    Guy Boulet says:

    In science, only evidences can lead to conclusions. The absence of evidence doesn’t prove anything. What all this says is that there is no evidence of learning styles efficiency but are there evidences of its inefficiency?
    Furthermore literature reviews are not research. They simply demonstrate what has been found so far and provide leads on what should be looked at in the future. If no one has been able to demonstrate learning styles efficiency, maybe it is time to seriously look at gathering evidence on learning styles inefficiency.
    Or maybe learning style approaches are just as good as other approaches, which could explain the absence of evidence.

  6. Will Thalheimer
    Will Thalheimer says:

    Stephen Downes commented on my blog post on Karyn Romeis’s blog. https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=14184878&postID=2571850319040161924
    My response didn’t fit the maximum number of characters there, so I’m including my response to Stephen Downes attack below
    Here is my response:
    Stephen Downes continues his untrue, slanderous, and uninformed attacks on my Learning Styles Challenge and the critique of learning styles utilization in general.
    I will attempt to respond to his assertions one at a time. But first you might want to consider the general tenor of Stephen’s arguments as evidence of their limited value.
    ——
    You can notice Stephen’s bias in his first paragraph when he uses the term “ultra-right” and blames people in the United States for some “content-first” political movement. He again stoops to name calling in his final paragraph, stating that criticism of the learning-styles design approach is a political campaign.
    In response to Stephen’s comment about ultra-right content-first people, I just want to settle him down by saying that my political leanings are on the left. Also, sorry the U.S. Hockey team beat Canada last night in the preliminary round of the Olympics, but we folks in the States really aren’t the dark and evil overlords Stephen makes us out to be. My brother lives in Halifax and is married to a Canadian so maybe I could get special dispensation from Stephen and his good-morality council.
    ——
    Stephen claims that I “specifically want to prevent research” in my learning-styles challenge. Nothing could be further from the truth. My challenge forbids academic development because the WHOLE POINT of the Learning Styles Challenge is to SHOW THAT designing learning interventions based on learning styles is not viable in the PRACTICAL day-to-day of REAL-WORLD workplace learning.
    I have told Stephen this before in my comment to his comment on my blog when I wrote in September of 2009:
    “I’m skeptical that a real-world e-learning shop could create an e-learning program that utilizes learning styles. I don’t think it’s practically feasible. I don’t think clients will pay for the extra diagnostics, the extra development costs, and the extra threats to people’s personal privacy (because of the diagnostics). So, I want to specifically exclude programs that are created for academic purposes only. I want to exclude programs that are just created for research purposes—that have no other commercial purposes.”
    Because Stephen’s assertion that I am preventing research, let me ask him: Why Stephen would I cite research from some of the world’s best researchers if I didn’t like research? This kind of twisting-of-the-truth attack is unethical, unprofessional, and disingenuous.
    Stephen complains that I exclude academic research, but the point of my recent blog post was to let people know about the recent ACADEMIC research that has been done, WHICH BY THE WAY reviewed the learning-styles research and found it to be lacking. Learning styles research carried out academic researchers has NOT shown that using a learning-styles approach is effective. It has demonstrated the opposite—that a learning-styles approach has not been effective.
    ——
    Stephen complains about an instructivist model of learning and assumes, incorrectly, that I am a strict instructivist. The instructivist-constructivist debate is intriguing and I would recommend the edited book, Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?
    Sigmund Tobias and Thomas M. Duffy (Editors) for those who want a brilliant and balanced view of the debate.
    I am not an instructivist or a constructivist, but rather an empiricist. I review research to find out what works, regardless of the theories. I am particular sympathetic to the constructivist criticism (led by my former Columbia-University graduate-student colleague Dan Schwartz now at Stanford) that the instructivists only look at tests that are too narrow to capture the benefits of constructivist learning strategies. I would point out to Stephen (who ranted against “tests” in his comment here) that researchers on both sides of the debate agree that they need to use some form of testing to see if one learning approach is better than another—to see if a learning-styles approach actually works. Testing is not bad Stephen, but some tests are better tests than others.
    I want to highlight what I have written to show that I am not against learning styles in general, I am skeptical of their practical significance (Again, this is why the Learning Styles Challenge focuses only on real-world commercial applications).
    In my most recent blog post I say:
    “Perhaps someday more research will demonstrate some specific benefits to learning styles.”
    In my original Learning Styles Challenge I wrote:
    “I have my doubts, but am open to being proven wrong.”
    In BOTH of updates (in 2007 and 2009) to my original challenge, I wrote:
    “Let me be clear, my argument is not that people don’t have different learning styles, learning preferences, or learning skills. My argument is that for real-world instructional-development situations, learning styles is an ineffective and inefficient waste of resources that is unlikely to produce meaningful results.”
    Does this sound like someone who is on some sort of instructivist crusade?
    ——
    Stephen complains that I have been silent to his criticisms. Again he lies. I have commented on my blog several times to refute his claims.
    Look at my comments to Stephen’s Comments at: http://www.willatworklearning.com/2009/09/learning-styles-challenge-threeyear-update.html
    And here:
    http://www.willatworklearning.com/2007/08/learning-styles.html
    ——
    Stephen acts as if he is waging a noble war on people like me who are evil and politically motivated. Unfortunately, he is mis-educating thousands of people with his unprovoked attacks. If he stuck to facts rather than attacking people’s motivations, perhaps he could add some value. If he offered some data, rather than ranting disingenuously, perhaps we could enjoin a healthy debate.
    I long ago stopped searching out Stephen Downes writings because of his approach to dialogue and discussion.
    If it sounds like I am irritated at Stephen’s unscrupulous tactics, I am. I am irritated that such uninformed rhetoric gets little pushback, and I am irritated that I have to utilize my time responding to such an attack. My time is very critical right now. I am leading a small cadre of American instructivists who have been designing the training for the U.S. Olympic Hockey team.

  7. Paul Simbeck-Hampson
    Paul Simbeck-Hampson says:

    Hi Will, I think your Twitter account has been hacked. Today I received a phishing DM from you, please check. The DM comment was “This you!!!” and then a link to a false sign-up page on Twitter (don’t sign up!). Regards, Paul Simbeck-Hampson (@simbeckhampson)

  8. Julian King
    Julian King says:

    I commented on this originally but didn’t recieve a response. You really have to clarify what you’re talking about when you say learning styles. I need to know what you are referring to before I claim my $1000 :). My guess is that the proof will be in the work you’re doing anyway.

  9. Ellen Behrens
    Ellen Behrens says:

    Will — Read Karyn’s post, Stephen’s response, your comments and post…
    Great debate!
    I summarized in my comment on Karyn’s blog why I push against Learning Styles as a methodology for design and instruction but will repeat it here: When organizations as large and influential as ASAE and The Center, with 20,000+ members, including knowledge of and application of learning styles as a core competency in professional development, then there’s a real problem with a blind acceptance of an unproven theory. ASAE advocates Learning Styles exclusively and the repercussions are serious and wide spread.
    Learning professionals can read and debate the literature all they want, but the far-reaching impact of such debates is often missed in the fray.
    Many professional learning leaders are doing the best they can to deliver effective educational events based on what they’ve learned from ASAE because their backgrounds are in the industry they serve or in meeting planning or other association experience, rather than instructional design, educational and learning theory, etc. How are they to know that what they’re learning isn’t supported by the research unless we keep pushing?
    Thanks for fighting the good fight, Will. Like you, I’m curious to see where Learning Styles come out (if they’re ever really put to the test), but — also like you — I have my doubts.

  10. Larry Irons
    Larry Irons says:

    “I’m skeptical that a real-world e-learning shop could create an e-learning program that utilizes learning styles. I don’t think it’s practically feasible. I don’t think clients will pay for the extra diagnostics, the extra development costs, and the extra threats to people’s personal privacy (because of the diagnostics). So, I want to specifically exclude programs that are created for academic purposes only. I want to exclude programs that are just created for research purposes—that have no other commercial purposes.”
    The conditions for the test you outline don’t sound very empirical to me.

  11. texas general liability insurance
    texas general liability insurance says:

    I summarized in my comment on Karyn’s blog why I push against Learning Styles as a methodology for design and instruction but will repeat it here: When organizations as large and influential as ASAE and The Center, with 20,000+ members, including knowledge of and application of learning styles as a core competency in professional development, then there’s a real problem with a blind acceptance of an unproven theory. ASAE advocates Learning Styles exclusively and the repercussions are serious and wide spread.

  12. Peter Howe
    Peter Howe says:

    Dear Will, I’m new to this heated discussion, but of course am keen to win your $1000.
    Over 20 years of teaching adult students, I have found the most basic concept of Jung/MBTI, extroversion vs introversion, to be highly relevant to the way students learn. E’s like to workshop thoughts. I’s often think before they speak, if they speak at all. An obvious trap is to pace a class’s progress purely on what one is hearing from E’s. I’s often hate to ad-lib, but if given a few minutes to prepare notes, they can work from them.
    If you can help me design a satisfying study around this, I’ll split the $ with you!

  13. phlebotomy training
    phlebotomy training says:

    Furthermore literature reviews are not research. They simply demonstrate what has been found so far and provide leads on what should be looked at in the future. If no one has been able to demonstrate learning styles efficiency, maybe it is time to seriously look at gathering evidence on learning styles inefficiency.

  14. christian louboutin sale
    christian louboutin sale says:

    As learning professionals, our clients—our fellow workers—will be more and more confused and duped by information overload. To be successful, we’ll have to figure out ways to help them fight their way through the accelerating storm of information.

  15. pandora bracelets
    pandora bracelets says:

    I’m not at all confident of this. People have to put in substantial time to do good honest reporting (and good honest research, by the way). Putting in a lot of time generally requires some kind of payment so the reporter can afford the computer, the roof, and the food to keep doing the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply