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Do learning styles really exist?

Have you ever had a teacher recommend you identify your learning style and adjust your study techniques to fit?  If you’ve ever been told you’re a ‘visual learner’, or a ‘kinaesthetic kind of person’, you might have let this impact the way you approach your schooling.

But despite the hype, experts say learning styles aren’t actually very useful. According to Deakin University’s Dr Loch Forsyth, inadequate research shows we can’t always trust learning styles.

People learn differently and take things in differently depending on the task, says Dr Forsyth. An individual may utilise one style when learning one task and then another when learning a different task.

So how should we interpret learning styles?

Why learning styles have been called ‘pseudo-science’

The concept of learning styles has ‘come under a lot of recent criticism’ from psychological researchers, Dr Forsyth explains.

‘I try to take a measured approach with my approach to understanding learning styles, because in recent years the American Psychological Association and academics have highlighted concerns after recent research would seem to suggest the evidence for them is limited to none. Some of the broader criticisms that learning styles have faced in the wake of recent research have included terms such as pseudo-science or myths,’ he says.

‘The methodological designs utilised by much of the previous research that had investigated learning styles have come under heavy criticism in recent years.’

Dr Forsyth says researchers who have recently re-looked at the original studies on learning styles critiqued much of the existing research as being flawed or lacking, which is why a lot of it has since been discounted.

We utilise multiple learning styles everyday

In more recent, robust research into learning styles, most students were found to use multiple learning styles when approaching tasks, as opposed to one.

‘There was research conducted where they classified students by their self-reported preferred learning style,’ Dr Forsyth says. ‘The majority of students didn’t end up utilising their self-reported style. They ended up using a range of different approaches.’

It became even more apparent that strictly following a particular learning style may not be helpful, when the students following their preferred style didn’t perform at a stronger level than those that didn’t stick to just one style.

Based on the research, it’s clear we all use a number of learning styles to complete tasks and sticking to one style won’t necessarily improve your performance.

So, there is no need to identify one learning style and stick to it. Use what works for you depending on the task.

Why learning styles keep sticking

There’s something appealing about classifying people as a ‘type’ but the reality is, learning is ‘a bit more complex’, Dr Forsyth concludes.

‘It looks good at a glance and might resonate and appeal to us, but when it’s tested with any type of rigour it doesn’t stand up. There’s not enough evidence to suggest that learning styles and the backing behind them will translate to better outcomes for students, even if we tailor our learning around specific self-reporting learning style preferences,’ he says.

So why do so many schools and workplaces keep using them?

Dr Forsyth believes we use different styles to best handle different situations.

‘For example, I might be problem-solving as well as observing. It depends on the context and it depends on the person. What people think they might prefer as opposed to what they actually do can be two different things when it comes to learning styles,’ he says.

At face value learning styles remain a tantalising idea. But the unquestioning acceptance of them holds false promises if they don’t translate to optimised learning outcomes.

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Dr Loch Forsyth
Dr Loch Forsyth


Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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