New Scientific Review of Learning Styles


Just last month at the Debunker Club, we debunked the learning-styles approach to learning design based on our previous compilation of learning-styles debunking resources.

Now, there’s a new research review by Daniel Willingham, debunker extraordinaire, and colleagues.

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271.

Here’s what they tried to do in the article, in their own words:

“The purpose of this article is to (a) clarify what learning styles theories claim and distinguish them from theories of ability, (b) summarize empirical research pertaining to learning styles, and (c) provide suggestions for practice and implications supported by empirical research.”

The distinction between abilities and styles is important to the authors:

“The two are often confused, but the distinction is important. It is relatively uncontroversial that cognitive ability is multifaceted (e.g., verbal ability and facility with space have distinct cognitive bases), and it is uncontroversial that individuals vary in these abilities. For ‘‘styles’’ to add any value to an account of human cognition and learning, it must mean something other than what ability means. While styles refer to how one does things, abilities concern how well one does them.”

Predictions from learning-styles theory:

“Learning styles theories make two straightforward predictions. First, a learning style is proposed to be a consistent attribute of an individual, thus, a person’s learning style should be constant across situations. Consequently, someone considered an auditory learner would learn best through auditory processes regardless of the subject matter (e.g., science, literature, or mathematics) or setting (e.g., school, sports practice, or work). Second,  cognitive function should be more effective when it is consistent with a person’s preferred style; thus, the visual learner should remember better (or problem-solve better, or attend better) with visual materials than with other materials.”

Results: Are these learning-styles predictions validated by the research?:

“No. Several reviews that span decades have evaluated the literature on learning styles (e.g., Arter & Jenkins, 1979; Kampwirth & Bates, 1980; Kavale & Forness, 1987; Kavale, Hirshoren, & Forness, 1998; Pashler et al., 2009; Snider, 1992; Stahl, 1999; Tarver & Dawson, 1978), and each has drawn the conclusion that there is no viable evidence to support the theory. Even a recent review intended to be friendly to theories of learning styles (Kozhevnikov, Evans, & Kosslyn, 2014) failed to claim that this prediction of the theory has empirical support. The lack of supporting evidence is especially unsurprising in light of the unreliability of most instruments used to identify learners’ styles (for a review, see Coffield et al., 2004).”