Learning Styles Out of Fashion

Written by David Christianson

It seemed to make sense – we all have different learning styles. You could take a learning styles inventory, find out your preferred learning style, and supposedly, that was the best way for you to learn. You might be a visual learner, spatial learner, a logical, an aural, physical, social, or solitary learner, and if you found out your best learning style, you would become a whiz at learning.

The problem with learning styles, and finding out how we learn best to learn the most, is that the idea has no support from empirical research. It’s a neat idea, but not one that is valid. The point is not that there are not learning styles, but rather, evidence does not support that receiving instruction with a preferred style improves learning.

So what is left? While the idea of learning styles to learn best has been debunked, strong research does suggest what does work best for learning. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel lay out the best methods for learning. While learning styles seems intuitive, they report that the most effective methods for learning are often counterintuitive.

Here are seven of the researched claims they make:

1. “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”

2. “We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”

3. “Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive.”

4. “Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

5. “When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.”

6. “All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.”

7. “The popular notion that you learn better when you receive instruction in a form consistent with your preferred learning style...is not supported by the empirical research.”

Make It Stick goes deeper and makes other claims as well. The focus for this article is that learning should be effortful, and easy learning through learning styles simply is not supported by research. Retrieval practice (flashcards, quizzes, tests) are the strongest ways to retain information. Since prior knowledge is required for new learning, having a solid foundation of information is necessary before learning can go deeper. Effort makes learning deeper and longer lasting. With this information in mind, the idea that learning is made easier when it is delivered through your favorite style actually doesn’t make any sense after all.

If you’re looking for a great read to improve your teaching, and even your own learning, Make It Stick should be at the top of your list.

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