Learning Styles “Myth”-busting

Since the work by Jung (1964) on personalities, research and publications on learning styles and cognitive styles have grown in prominence (Coffield, 2004; Pashler, 2008). While the number of learning style models has grown exponentially and with great commercial success, practical use has remained limited (Coffield, 2004; Cook, 2012; Pashler, 2008). Multiple literature reviews continue to demonstrate similar findings and recommendations – insufficient evidence to recommend classroom use (Cook, 2012; Pashler, 2008). While some models, like Allinson and Hayes’ Cognitive Styles Index (CSI), demonstrate some promise, the supporting empirical evidence for pedagogical application is lacking (Coffield, 2004). So why do these theories remain so prominent? What can we take away for health professional education (HPE)?

Despite the lack of empirical evidence for the benefit of these learning styles, we all could likely think of personal experiences that support the idea.  For example, my brother (J) who is an electrical engineer always seemed to learn math better than me or my other siblings. He clearly has an aptitude for mathematics and has excelled in this field. Given a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcements, he made choices that led him to a self-reinforcing career in a math-based field. As many mathematical concepts avail themselves to certain instructional best practices and styles, it would be very easy for my brother to assume he has a learning style and falsely presume instructional matching as the cause of his success. Many scholars note this powerful confirmation bias as one possible reason for the persistence of the learning styles “myth” (Marshik, 2015). From a larger cultural perspective, I suspect learning styles remain ingrained as they resonate with a pervasive individuality more prominently dominating Western philosophy and culture for the latter half of the 20th century. Also, these models provide a much desired explanation for why people fail to learn. Educators desperately desire a way to diagnose “pathology” and come up with “cures.” It is empowering to think that I can give a tailor-made prescription of style-matched instruction to help a struggling learner. As “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” it would be even better to tailor instruction to everyone and never have a student struggle.  This premise sounds too good to be true. As discussed above, many contemporary scholars believe just that; however, the belief still persists (Britt, 2009; Marshik, 2015; Willingham, 2008).

So how can we, in HPE, address the dubious yet pervasive belief of learning styles? While Marshik, Willingham, and company fight the uphill battle to crush belief in learning styles, I believe HPE may do well to stay out of the fray and continue to innovate while employing best practices. I believe we can best help learners in HPE by providing context, layering instruction through multiple methods using multiple sensory modalities, and by employ contrasting and comparator cases. See my previous post “crisscrossing the landscape” for more on this.

Works Cited

Britt, Michael. “Learning Styles: A Grand Myth – An Interview with Daniel Willingham.” The Psych Files. The Psych Files, 28 Mar. 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. http://www.thepsychfiles.com/2009/03/episode-90-the-learning-styles-myth-an-interview-with-daniel-willingham/

Coffield, Frank, David Moseley, Elaine Hall, and Kathryn Ecclestone. Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post -16 Learning. N.p.: Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004. LEARNINGAND SKILLS RESEARCH CENTRE. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.

Cook, David A. “Revisiting Cognitive and Learning Styles in Computer-Assisted Instruction.” Academic Medicine 87.6 (2012): 778-84. Web.

Glenn, David. “Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Dec. 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. http://chronicle.com/article/Matching-Teaching-Style-to/49497/

Marshik, Tesia. “Learning Styles & the Importance of Critical Self-reflection – TEDxUWLaCrosse.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=855Now8h5Rs

Pashler, Harold, Mark Mcdaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9.3 (2009): 105-19. Web.

Willingham, Daniel. “Learning Styles Don’t Exist.” YouTube. YouTube, 21 Aug. 2008. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk


One thought on “Learning Styles “Myth”-busting

  1. Love this blog post Luke! Probably my favorite of any this term. The thing you did really well is to support your claims with references to the literature. And so now here’s a question for you — was developing this blog post a waste of time and effort? You indicated that you felt “these assignments provided little added value with some additional stress and extraneous cognitive load.” Did you learn nothing by researching and writing this well-crafted post? The next time someone references their learning style (or that of their students), will you not be in a better position to put forth a reasoned argument as to why we should “tread lightly” in this realm?


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