Surely you’ve heard that kids have different “learning styles.” Some supposedly learn better visually, others through listening. Some kids are cooperative while others are competitive.

Well, there is no consensus on what “learning styles” actually are, and some experts say they don’t, in fact, exist.

One of those experts is Howard Gardner, the renowned Harvard University psychologist whose 1983 book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” details a new model of human intelligence that involves a variety of intelligences, which some people mistake for learning styles. He wrote about that here.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has also written about this issue, and he does so again in this post, looking at why so many teachers believe that students really do have different learning styles — and why they are wrong.

Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. His research once centered on the brain basis of learning and memory, but for more than 15 years, he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed this year by President Barack Obama to be a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, an independent and nonpartisan arm of the Education Department that provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.

Willingham is the author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also blogs here, and his posts have appeared frequently over the years on The Answer Sheet, including “What is developmentally appropriate in learning” and “Why kids lose interest in reading as they get older.” This post, which he gave me permission to publish, appeared on his blog.

By Daniel Willingham

I concluded in about 2003 that many teachers believe in the accuracy of learning-styles theory. It was perhaps the second or third time I had given a public talk to teachers, and when I mentioned in passing that it is an example of a theory that sounds plausible but is wrong, I felt an immediate change in the audience. Several people said, “Wait, what? Can you please back up a slide?”

Since then I’ve written a couple of articles about learning styles (here and here), created a video on the subject, and put an FAQ on my website. Last week, I was on the “Science Friday” radio program (with Kelly Macdonald and Lauren McGrath) to talk about learning styles and other neuro myths.

I put energy into dispelling the learning-styles myth because I thought that audience of educators was representative — that is, that most teachers think the theory is right. But with the exception of one recent study showing that academics often invoke learning-styles theories in  professional journal articles (Newton, 2015), there hasn’t been empirical data on how widespread this belief is in the United States.

Now there is.

Macdonald, McGrath, and their colleagues
conducted a survey to test the pervasiveness of various beliefs about learning among American adults (N = 3,048), and among educators in particular (N =598). Similar surveys have been conducted in parts of Europe, East Asia and Latin America, where researchers have observed high levels of inaccurate beliefs on these issues.

Learning-styles theory was endorsed by 93 percent of the public and 76 percent of educators. Data regarding other neuro myths (common misperceptions about learning or the brain) are shown in the table below (from the paper).

As the authors acknowledge, there are limitations to this interpretation, in particular regarding the sample. The subjects were visitors to the site TestMyBrain.org, and so it’s difficult to know how they differed from a random sample. Still, neuro myths were endorsed at rates similar to those observed in other countries.

Why is acceptance of the idea so high? No one really knows, but here’s my tripartite guess.

First, I think by this point the concept has achieved the status of one of those ideas that “they” have figured out. People believe it for the same reason I believe atomic theory. I’ve never seen the scientific papers supporting it (and wouldn’t understand them if I had), but everyone believes the theory, and my teachers taught it to me, so why would I doubt that it’s right?

Second, I think learning-styles theory is widely accepted because the idea is so appealing. It would be so nice if it were true. It predicts that a struggling student would find much of school work easier if we made a relatively minor change to lesson plans — ensure the auditory learners are listening, the visual learners are watching, and so on.

Third, something quite close to the theory is not only right, it’s obvious. The style distinctions (visual vs. auditory; verbal vs. visual) often correspond to real differences in ability. Some people are better with words, some with space and so on. The (incorrect) twist that learning-styles theories add is to suggest that everyone can reach the same cognitive goal via these different abilities; that if I’m good with space but bad with words (or better, if I prefer space to words), you can rearrange a verbal task so that it plays to my spatial strength.

That’s where the idea goes wrong.

First, the reason we make the distinction between types of tasks is that they are separable in the brain and mind; we think verbal and visual are fundamentally different, not fungible.

Second, while there are tasks that can be tackled in more than one way, these tasks are usually much easier when done in one way or another. For example, if I give you a list of concrete nouns, one at a time, and ask you to remember them, you could do this task verbally (by repeating the word to yourself, thinking of meaning, etc.) or visually (by creating a visual mental image). Even for people who are not very good at imagery, the latter method is a better way of doing the task. Josh Cuevas of the University of North Georgia has an article coming out early next years showing this point: People’s alleged learning styles don’t count for anything in accounting for task performance, but the effect of a strategy on a task is huge.

​A final note: I frequently hear from teachers that they learned about the theory in teacher education classes. I’ve looked at all of the well-known educational psychology textbooks, and none of them present the idea as correct. But neither do they debunk it. Teachers are, according to the survey, more accurate than the general public in their beliefs about learning, but they should be way ahead. Debunking these ideas in education psychology textbooks ought to help.