More research is needed to back up learning styles theories

by Cindy Spence
Master’s student, University of Florida

Cindy Spence

Cindy Spence

Intuitively, learning styles theory makes sense. Many of us have an orientation toward a certain kind of stimulus: visual, aural, kinesthetic. And many of us believe we learn better if a lesson caters to our orientation.

The evidence, however, says our intuition is wrong.

University of Virginia psychology Professor Daniel Willingham, who studies the role of cognitive psychology in kindergarten through university education, says the evidence for learning styles just does not exist. Learning styles, he says, are one of those things people think they have figured out. They believe science has settled the issue, in favor of learning styles, when very little research has been done at all.

So how did the learning styles movement gain traction? It started in 1923, when psychoanalyst Carl Jung published his book, “Psychological Types,” proposing that people are innately different, both in how they relate to the world and how they absorb information.

Jung’s theories were built into the first widely used personality type test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which categorizes people into 16 types. The first MBTI test was published in 1943. Every year 2 million people complete the test, and it is used not only in education but also in marriage and career counseling.

The popularity of the Myers-Briggs test grew in the 1960s and 1970s, and it spawned imitators. Today, there are well over 70 different programs aimed at matching personality traits to learning styles, most supported with an assortment of auxiliary materials – guidebooks, workshops, websites – all for a fee.

One appealing feature of these programs is a quiz. Most are designed to be fun and easy with questions anyone can answer: would you rather go for a hike, read a book, listen to music? Results can depend on which quiz you take, your mood and a variety of other factors. Most quizzes are offered free, with a fee for more in-depth testing.

Advocates of learning style-based teaching say effective instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly. For example, a visual learner would like pictures, videos, flowcharts, diagrams, highlighting in different colors. An auditory learner would like discussion, tutorials, using a tape recorder, interesting anecdotes.

In a 2004 report, British researcher Frank Coffield and colleagues set out to review the literature on learning styles. They wanted to answer the question, “Should we be using learning styles?” They found the literature so extensive that they limited their review to the 13 most influential models. The report was 182 pages.

One popular tool, Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, had generated 1,004 articles since 1971. Another, Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Questionnaire, had generated 1,140 articles. And the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator had generated 2,000 articles just between 1985 and 1995.

In 2008, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researcher Harold Pashler and colleagues took on the task of determining whether learning styles practices are supported by scientific evidence. The researchers concluded, “ . . . there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice . . . Many have simply not been tested at all.”

Coffield’s team found that research on learning styles breaks into three categories: theoretical, pedagogical, and commercial. On the commercial front, it is particularly problematic, he says, because what one company offers as a learning styles assessment often differs widely from the next company’s assessment methods, and the next. Big money is at stake, and the companies are so large, Coffield says, that “critical engagement with the theoretical and empirical bases of their claims tends to be unwelcome.”

“The use of different inventories of learning styles has acquired an unexamined life of its own,” Coffield and his colleagues concluded.

Coffield says the debate over learning styles has led to “intellectual trench warfare” in academia. Mainstream use – like the quizzes we find on the internet – has become separated from the research.

Tom Bennett, a teacher in London who founded researchED,  a clearinghouse for research on educational practice, believes that catering to learning styles can be harmful, and uses the example of an auditory learner who does not like to read or write.

“You can sit with that child and read him things to meet the needs of his learning style. But does that actually help him? And how realistic is it to do that for 25 students in a classroom?” Bennett asks.

Bennett says it quite possibly harms that student to “pander” to his or her preference rather than pushing the student out of his comfort zone to learn reading and writing skills.

Coffield and Pashler both encountered the view that a learning style is a fixed trait, and said that leads to other issues:

  •  The possibility that a learning style can be diagnosed also raises the possibility that it can be misdiagnosed.
  • The view that learning styles result from fixed traits that do not change could lead to labeling students, or whole groups of students with one particular style.
  • Matching instruction to learning styles could be limiting, not liberating.

Pashler and his colleagues note that part of the reason for the persistence of learning styles theory is that people want to be treated (and want their children to be treated) as unique individuals in an educational system that can be impersonal. If a child is not succeeding, it might be easier to take the teacher to task, rather than the child. It is also appealing to think that anyone can learn anything if their learning style is taken into account. Pashler notes the simultaneous rise of the self-esteem movement and the learning styles resurgence in the 1970s.

For educators, sorting through the research is daunting. A Frontiers in Psychology paper full sought to determine what an educator would find if he or she made a good-faith effort to look up the research on learning styles in common databases like ERIC and PubMed. Researcher Phil Newton disqualified pay per view databases. Of the 109 papers that met his criteria, 94 percent were positive about learning styles overall, and 89 percent supported use of learning styles to tailor instruction in higher ed. Even respected universities’ web sites discuss learning styles as accepted practice in many cases, although Vanderbilt’s site does note that research on learning styles is limited.

Bennett and other researchers suggest observation and interviews of students work better at tailoring learning, although they are much more labor intensive than a quiz.

“Time, like land, is the one thing they aren’t making any more of,” Bennett says. “Waste a minute of a child’s [or student’s] life with mumbo jumbo and you’ve stolen a minute of their learning.”

What action should teachers take?
 For teachers, the takeaway message from the research is to choose a style of delivery that matches the unit of content in order to create meaning for the most students. Teaching a great speech in a history or rhetoric class might require an audio approach, while teaching engineering might require a kinesthetic approach and teaching design a visual approach. The world is a multi-modal environment, and students will need to tap into many learning styles to succeed.


Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Click to access LSRC_LearningStyles.pdf

Newton, P. (2015). The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D, Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3): 105-119

Willingham, D.T., Hughes, E.M., Dobolyi, D.G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3): 266-271.

Cindy Spence is a master’s student at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930). This blog post is based on a teaching presentation she made in class.


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