A persistent misconception

G. Neil Martin responds in an ongoing debate.

It is still disappointing and surprising to read at this stage in the decade that the belief that learning styles exist still itself exists, despite the evidence demonstrating that the concept has no validity – there is no satisfactory operational definition of a learning ‘style’ – and that the matching of learning according to any putative learning style does not lead to a better academic outcome (Letters, September 2017). The misconception extends to higher education with 58 per cent of a sample of UK academics, according to a 2017 survey, endorsing the use of learning styles, although only 33 per cent actually used them (Newton & Miah, 2017).

Pohrer and Pashler (2012) found that of 20 studies in fields as varied as psychology, science and medicine, only three reported evidence for learning styles: one did not report the measures on which the data were derived and only one produced a statistically significant result. In two, there were mixed results – half the tests were positive; half were negative. People with ‘visual learning styles’ are no better at learning words visually than auditorily (Constantinidou & Baker, 2002) and are no better at processing verbal or pictorial information if they are self-described visualisers or verbalisers (Massa & Meyer, 2006). A study of medical students found no benefit of matching learning to sensitive/concrete and intuitive/abstract learning styles (Cook et al., 2009).

Kirschner and van Merrienboer (2013) have argued that a better way of helping people to learn better is not to indulge the concept of learning styles but to tailor instruction to cognitive ability. If cognitive ability and prior learning are taken into account when instructing, this will benefit a student’s learning. They cite an example from Kalyuaga et al. (2003). When students were divided into those with low prior knowledge or high prior knowledge, LPK students were better at learning from examples than from solving problems. HPK students showed the opposite pattern. This answers the ‘why’ question – Why do some approaches work? rather than the ‘what’ question – What works? (the more superficial of the two questions).

Professor G. Neil Martin
Regent’s University London

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