Learning styles: The myth that won’t die

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You just had another one of those conversations. You know, the one where a colleague casually drops “learning styles” into the conversation assuming that we’re all on board with this commonly known fact of learning. Did you respond with “well, actually…” or did you try to extract yourself from the situation as quickly and gracefully as possible? Or did you just glance at your phone and say, “Oh! I have to go! I’m late for a meeting.”

If you’re looking for a comprehensive treatment of the topic, then the Pashler, et.al. (2008) paper is the place to start. The authors provide a nice overview, some history on how we got to here, the kind of research evidence needed to “validate interventions based on learning styles,” and then a review of the literature itself. The punch line? “We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.”

After reading about the dearth of experimental testing regarding learning styles Rogowsky and colleagues (2014) matched students’ “learning style preference” with “instructional mode.” The results? No impact. Interestingly, those who preferred to read – “visual word” – to learn performed the best overall as compared to those with an “auditory word” preference. The authors write, “It is important to keep in mind that most testing, from state standardized education assessments to college admission tests, is presented in a written word format only. Thus, it is important to give students as much experience with written material as possible to help them build these skills, regardless of their preferred learning style.”

If you’re looking for a Q & A approach, Daniel Willingham has a nice “Learning Styles FAQ.” Twelve questions, twelve answers. The first question: “How can you not believe that that people learn differently?  Isn’t it obvious?” The first sentence of the first answer: “People do learn differently, but I think it is very important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter.”

Twelve questions are too many? How about five questions and a statement (Jarrett, 2015)?

Or maybe you want some guidance on how to gauge the utility of learning styles articles. Megan Smith of the Learning Scientists blog suggests four criteria to look for: 1. Explanation of why we can’t shake this myth; 2. Description of the kind of data what would be helpful; 3. Explanation of the harm that meshing teaching to learning styles can cause; and 4. Description of better approaches to teaching. Smith uses these criteria to walk us through a few learning style articles.

 What are the alternative approaches to teaching?

Stephen Chew brings us the “Cognitive Principles of Effective Teaching” 5-part video series. The first video addresses common beliefs about teaching. Videos two, three, and four, address “cognitive challenges of teaching,” such as mindset, ineffective learning strategies, and the constraints of working memory.

Samuel Moulton (2014) provides a more extensive review of the literature of learning. He addresses areas such as “effective and active learning” (e.g., spaced practice, deep processing), “mental architecture” (e.g., cognitive load, dual coding), and “motivation and persistence” (e.g., achievement motivation, social learning).

Would you prefer a free ebook on the topic? Benassi, et.al. (2014) edited a wonderful 24-chapter book published by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum.


Now that you are up to speed on the learning styles literature and other – better – ways of teaching, you will be ready for that next hallway conversation.

Special thanks to Kristie Morris who raised this topic on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s PsychTeacher listserv and to Molly Metz, Bill Goffe, Kristina Dandy, Xiaomeng Xu, and Karen Huxtable-Jester for providing their favorite resources on the topic.



Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php  

Chew, S. (n.d.). Cognitive principles of effective teaching. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from https://www.samford.edu/employee/faculty/cognitive-principles-of-effective-teaching

Jarrett, C. (2015, January 5). All you need to know about the ‘learning styles’ myth, in two minutes. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/01/need-know-learning-styles-myth-two-minutes

Moulton, S. T. (2014). Applying psychological science to higher education: Key findings and open questions. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from http://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/moulton_2014_applying_psychological_science_to_higher_educa...

Pashler, H., Mcdaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidencePsychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehensionJournal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64-78. doi:10.1037/a0037478

Smith, M. (n.d.). Weekly digest #9: How to talk about learning styles. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/5/8/weekly-digest-9 

Willingham, D. (n.d.). Daniel Willingham's Learning Styles FAQ. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.