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What type of learner are you? And why it does not matter

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | June 26, 2012

As an educator, I often come across the concept of  “learning styles.” Briefly, this refers to the idea that different people learn in different ways. Concerned students will often remark that they didn’t do well on a given exam because they are “visual learners,” while parents will often note that their child is a “motor learner,” an “aural learner,” or perhaps an “intuitive learner.” The implicit message behind these labels is that educators need to match their method of instruction to match the style of the student, so as to maximize the student’s learning and performance. The flip side of this argument, of course, is that if the student learns or performs poorly, some of it may have to do with a mismatch between the student’s style and the method of instruction.

The notion of learning styles is deeply influential in educational circles; I myself recently attended a teacher training seminar sponsored by my own university where we were given assessments about our own learning styles and discussed ways to teach material catered to different learning styles. Learning styles are also big business, at least on the assessment side, with a number of websites and tests available to help people understand their own or their kids’ learning styles and strengths.

source: Wikimedia Commons (author: krgarts)

A very popular instrument, for example, is The Learning Styles Inventory (Kolb, 1984, 1985), which classifies learners as divergers, assimilators, convergers, and accommodators based on where they fall on a two-dimensional space (active–reflective versus abstract–concrete). This is not the only classificatory scheme, but it shares with other such schemes the idea that people’s learning styles can be classified into typologies.

The pull to understand what “type” of learner we are, much like the pull to understand what “type” of person we are, is very strong. Naturally, parents want the best for their kids, and learners in general want engaging, interesting material– but what is the research evidence behind these learning styles?

A 2008 study by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, addressed this very question by looking at the available data over the decades on this issues. Do studies that match (versus mismatch) students on the basis of their learning styles produce better performance? Here is the conclusion of the research:

“On the basis of our review, the belief that learning-style assessments are useful in educational contexts appears to be just that—a belief. Our conclusion reinforces other recent skeptical commentary on the topic (e.g., Coffield et al., 2004; Curry, 1990; Willingham, 2005, 2009)… At present…. we feel that the widespread use of learning-style measures in educational settings is unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.” (p. 117)

This is a strong conclusion, but in just about every study that rigorously tested the “matching” hypothesis, the results failed to yield the expected increase in perfomance when a given student was matched to his or her learning style (different studies used different classification methods, but in each case the data in support of the matching hypothesis was not compelling). Even more striking, the more carefully designed and controlled the study, the less the data supported the hypothesis that matching learning styles to type of instruction mattered.

Two conclusions from this: the first is that we often have incredibly strong intuitions about what kind of person we (or our loved ones) are– but these intuitions often do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. This happens in the domain of education, as well as in the domain of personality.

The second conclusion is that absent evidence of learning styles, our precious educational resources may be better spent looking at other types of interventions that seem to work– as I discuss in this post and this post.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “What type of learner are you? And why it does not matter

  1. That doesn’t make sense. For example, the smarter students don’t need a lot of hands-on learning to master concepts, because they can just remember and figure out things better in their minds. In other words, they learn more efficiently. I’ve noticed the less intelligent students and students with learning problems do better with hands-on learning because it 1. engages them more and holds their attention and 2. helps reinforce learning by recruiting more areas of the brain.

  2. Yes, as a parent you are naturally going to want to know the most effective way to teach your child. Each child is different. Especially with reading, its hard to judge the best way to create that foundation.

  3. Nice blog piece.

    One more point: although proponents claim that the evidence supports the use of teaching methods that are tailored to students’ learning style, a careful look at this literature shows that these studies do not support this claim, as explained in the monograph cited in this piece (Pashler et al. 2009 PSPI). (Disclosure: I was a co-author.) Also, in a bit of self-promotion, the arguments made in the PSPI monograph were summarized in a recent 2-page commentary Rohrer & Pashler, 2012, Medical Education). Both papers can be found here

  4. It’s a very interesting article. So interesting that I’m going to go find Professor Mendoza-Denton in twitter (too bad his link doesn’t work.)
    But, as a very experienced learner (now 71 and learning Chinese) I know quite a bit about how I can best go about learning and not all approaches work equally well for me.
    The notion of “Learning Style” seems to lack the kind of importance we’d been led to believe it had, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t worthless. Possibly the assessments are incorrect; perhaps even impossible.

  5. One most important lesson of history that all of our institutional and world leaders have failed to learn from is that leaders like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, MLK Jr, plus millions of American military, sacrificed their lives to make the world the best possible place to live for all human beings forever.

    With role models like them, we know we can do better, much better than we are to teach, learn and successfully produce a world where the human race overcomes today’s destructive social, political, economic and environmental problems, if for no other reason than to honor their sacrifices in order to produce a legacy so we can survive.

  6. This is a refreshing view on learning types in schools. As an older self educated adult entering junior college I have been plagued with professors focusing almost entirely on learning types. They take their lecture material and twist it into some sort of mindless presentation that targets each “learning group” and with this process they end up teaching almost nothing.

  7. Glad to hear it. We can take away another opportunity for people to blame someone other than themselves for their shortcomings and stay trapped in victimhood. JB

  8. Learning style also depends on age and lifestyle.

    Cal taught me, as an engineer, to discipline myself to concentrate and collaborate as hard as I could on solving continuously evolving problems starting with the vacuum tube era when I graduated, into the manufacturing computer control troubleshooting era where electromagnetic interference gave me whole new sets of problems to enjoy solving. Cory Hall professors prepared me very well and contributed to giving me a most enjoyable, challenging and rewarding profession during my career where observing, experimenting, conceptualizing and fast-tracking experiences were a way of life.

    After retiring over a decade ago, I began a whole new era of self-education, learning subjects such as biology (because my wife is a healthy survivor of two primary cancers and I knew absolutely nothing about cancer), chemistry, zoology, anthropology, sociology, evolution, history, politics, physics, neuroscience, psychology, environmental science, economics, basically anything that stimulated my curiosity to study in order figure out how we evolved into an era of increasing numbers of out of control problems due to our failures to learn and act upon the lessons of history, and motivate me to try to figure out how to solve our greatest problems while we still have time and resources to perpetuate an acceptable quality of life (especially since I am now an extremely happy grandparent of an infant and a toddler granddaughters).

    But the most important point I want to make is to motivate Cal professors and scholars, who taught us to protect and preserve the human race as our paramount obligation, to accept the responsibility of leadership by taking learning to a whole new level so humanity can protect and preserve itself. It’s time for professors and scholars to lead us because all of our institutional leaders have completely failed to do so. Our institutional leaders have been in the failure mode for far too long, and it’s time to produce and implement solutions or fail the hard way.

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