Why are learning-style theories counterintuitive?

Hate to break it to you: you are not a “visual,” “auditory” or “hands-on” learner. At least that is the conclusion arrived at by multiple research studies conducted over the decades.

Since the 1970s, learning-style theories have racked up popularity and immense support among educators. Learning-style theories attempt to define people by how they learn based on individual preferences. At their forefront is one coined by Neil Fleming in 1987 that follows the acronym VARK: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic. Fleming, an educator in New Zealand, focused his career’s research on how people learn and how to make the most of modality-centered learning styles.  

Students are often looking for ways to make things easier, so there is a lot of appeal in turning to strategies like VARK that offer one linear solution per person. However, over the decades, researchers have greatly criticized the validity of Fleming’s learning styles in improving learning outcomes. VARK has flaws and limitations when applied to a person’s entire learning experience. 

Learning-style theories are not true and can instead be harmful to students, although they were originally created to help us learn. Currently, we walk along a dangerous edge where VARK-adjacent theories are maladaptive learning strategies. The failure of learning styles in theory and employment can be examined through the dissection of a couple of myths.

To start, there is the foremost misconception that each student “learns best” with their preferred learning style. Myth number one: Students learn best when a course caters to their self-reported learning preferences. This is known as the “meshing hypothesis,” which claims that VARK is the basis for effective learning outcomes. More accurately, VARK represents the root of a rotted and spreading weed in learning-style theory. Instructors so often rely on the meshing hypothesis to encourage self-awareness in learning that the fact that VARK is completely ineffective and scientifically invalid has become forgotten. 

A 2009 review paper, Learning Styles: Concept and Evidence, concluded, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If the classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” Researchers found that learning styles lacked appropriate evidence for its practical utility; in fact, they called the scarce evidence “striking and disturbing.” Likewise, in a 2018 paper, The Modality-Specific Learning Style Hypothesis: A Mini-Review, Karoline Aslaksen and Håvård Lorås discovered that previous learning-style experiments lacked basic, crucial elements of experimental design including random assignment and comparison groups. In statistics, these aspects are essential to identifying a cause-and-effect relationship. As such, these studies are rendered invalid. Indeed, it is scary to see there is no foundation underneath a decades-long neuromyth.  

The “meshing hypothesis” also cannot be true because learning is a multisensory experience and does not conform to a singular learning approach. What is being perpetuated is a poorly researched, false idea that aims to reduce learning styles in child’s play when they are far more diverse and complex. Knowing this raises the question: If research fails to identify cause and effect between VARK and learning outcomes, then why is VARK relied on so frequently? Precisely because it is easy to refer to. But students are more complicated than three simple labels. And just because something is easy does not mean it should be succumbed to, especially not at the cost of hindering student learning or educating future generations.

Many times, educators assign learning style quizzes to help students identify their ideal VARK approach.

Believing your learning style can be discovered through one quiz is also another myth. While instructors do not have the time to observe and objectively assess student learning styles, assigning learning-style quizzes is futile. Such quizzes water down a lifelong learning process into a couple of basic questions. If students follow a learning style just because one quiz told them to, this can be detrimental to their learning endeavors. It may make them fearful when new avenues of exploration are incompatible with VARK. 

Well-rounded seems to be exactly the thing quizzes like the one by Education Planner avoid. One quiz cannot help you understand your entire learning approach, which truly depends on what you are learning. 

And another issue with learning-style quizzes? Because they are ineffective, students simply disregard the results. 

Glen Fujimaki (11) expressed how he did not feel the questions he answered represented him very well. 

“I felt as if there was a  fourth option that was none of the three most of the time,” he said. “I do not have a preferred learning method, I just use what is most efficient at the moment and what I feel is best in the current situation.”

Along with the failure to paint a good picture, learning-style quizzes are based on learning-style theories that are neuromyths. This means the students who do believe in the unfounded learning styles and adopt them are falling victim to the Barnum effect and self-fulfilling prophecy.

In psychology, the Barnum effect occurs when an individual believes in generalized and abstract traits applicable to all, such as horoscopes. Many characteristics listed under learning styles apply to everyone because they are vague and broad. Letting the Barnum effect influence you would be as superstitious as that one person who may tell you: “Oh, Tauruses have bad vibes.” In turn, this belief in vague traits leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone is told they are a fidgety, gum-chewing tactile learner who needs to take breaks often, they will go out of their way to subconsciously fulfill that prophecy. Expectations influence your actions. Being labeled a tactile learner causes the student to think it is their only ticket to success. VARK tells students they can only succeed through one mode of learning. Labeling people this way fails to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of learners. 

But if all this evidence refutes the meshing hypothesis supporting unimodal learning, how does VARK persist? Simply put, it is too big to fail. 

As pervasive as learning-style theory is, it is a myth that the widespread use of VARK in mainstream education is an effective learning tool. Learning-style theories have persisted for so long because they are easy labels to slap on students’ foreheads. But quite frankly, a scary amount of educators rely on them, especially since license exams require their application.

One study from 2017 on the prevalence of neuromyths found that among hundreds of educators surveyed, 78 percent agreed that “individuals learn better” with VARK, and 71 percent agreed that children’s learning styles are dominated by particular senses. Then, in a 2016 study, the National Center on Teacher Quality discovered that 67 percent of teacher-preparation programs required VARK applications in lesson planning. Alarming percentages of educators support VARK, but they do not question its effectiveness despite the large body of contradictory evidence.

In reality, there are several consequences to perpetuating ineffective learning styles. Widespread use of VARK forces learners to adopt labels and self-prophesize what they are or are not able to achieve. When told we learn best by following one approach, we tend to stay away from what we “cannot learn.” 

AP English Language and Honors English instructor Ember Arteaga attested to the potential fates of students who adhere strongly to learning styles. 

“If students fixate on what their learning style is, then they expect to be catered to in that style. They might think that is the only way they can learn something. The most well-rounded learners are those who are able to adapt and grow in their weaknesses. That could be their learning style.” 

But if staying away from what cannot be learned because it is not within the grasp of one’s learning style persisted, then a lot of people would not have achieved what they have today. A kinesthetic dancer would never think of being a business owner. Yet Gilliane is. A visually-inclined data scientist would never dream of doing stand-up comedy. But Nigel Ng did. Book-oriented medical students would never think of being musicians. However, Harvard Medical students’ music videos go viral. They are living proof of the potential outside of single-minded learning styles. Current learning-style models hinder present and future generations from self-actualizing and truly exploring what they are capable of. 

Learning-style models such as VARK are not scientifically backed and are rather limiting, which is ironic for something that was made with the intention of helping students learn. Alas, the meshing hypothesis is ineffective and contradictory when it forces self-awareness through singular thinking. Taking a learning style quiz often does not reveal new information that will make it into a student’s learning life. And finally, there is the dilemma of the learning-styles neuromyth being “too big to fail” and its far-reaching consequences. 

But do not fret! There are ways to combat the neuromyth of learning styles! Instead of subscribing to VARK, students can use evidence-based learning techniques such as chunking, spaced repetition, and the method of loci. It has also been shown the role of self-reflection is most conducive to learning. Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning explained that reflection improves learning outcomes when students think about how connections are drawn and conclusions reached. Knowing these already sets you off to be a better student compared to VARK. 

At the end of the day, this myth is still deeply entrenched in education, hence why a teacher here and countless others assign learning style quizzes to students. Still, we can fight the myth. As lifelong learners, it is up to us to take control of our learning and not jam ourselves into the labels: auditory, visual, and tactile.

As much as students get caught up in the whirlwind of study strategies and how to learn most effectively, there is one key takeaway it helps to be reminded of.

“Learning occurs much easier when you are enjoying the time studying, or doing something that you are passionate about, or enjoy, so certain learning styles may keep one learning for longer, therefore indirectly improve learning outcomes, in my opinion,” Fujimaki (11) shared.

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