What is it?
The idea underpinning learning styles is that individuals all have a particular approach to or style of learning. The theory is that learning will therefore be more effective or more efficient if students are taught using the specific style or approach that has been identified as their learning style. For example, students categorised as having a ‘listening’ learning style, could be taught more through storytelling and discussion and less through traditional written exercises.
How effective is it?
There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.
Overall the evidence shows an average impact of two months' progress for learning style interventions. However, given the limited evidence for the existence of ‘learning styles’, it is reasonable to conclude that these gains may be the result of students taking responsibility for their own learning (see Metacognition) or from teachers using a wider range of activities to teach the same content, rather than the result of different learning styles.
Learning preferences do change in different situations and over time and there is some evidence that cognitive preference and task type may be connected (for example, visualisation is particularly valuable for some areas of mathematics). However, studies where teaching activities are targeted towards particular learners based on an identified learning ‘style’ have not convincingly shown any major benefit, particularly for low attaining students. Impacts recorded are generally low or negative.
The lack of impact of learning styles has been documented at all stages of education but it is particularly important not to label primary age students or for them to believe that their lack of success is due to their learning style.
Despite the popularity of learning styles in Australian education, research in the Australian context has found little support for the approach, and has instead highlighted the potential harm in categorising students, suggesting, for example, that this type of labelling is particularly problematic for Indigenous students.
A 2010 review article conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that the concept of learning styles is commonly used by universities, schools and education departments in Australia. Its author noted that the concept of learning styles has initial appeal, but cautioned that its use was not supported by evidence and may promote damaging stereotypes.
How secure is the evidence?
Overall the picture is consistent though rigorous research is limited. The evidence for the lack of impact (and in some cases detrimental effect) of using learning styles approaches has been shown in a number of studies. The lack of validity and reliability of learning styles tests has also been the focus of a number of reviews.
What are the costs?
The costs are estimated as very low, though some of the available tests of learning styles require purchase. Typically, these are about $10 per student.
What should I consider?
Learners are very unlikely to have a single learning style, so restricting students to activities matched to their reported preferences may damage their progress. This is especially true for younger learners in primary schools whose preferences and approaches to learning are still very flexible.
Labelling students as particular kinds of learners is likely to undermine their belief that they can succeed through effort and to provide an excuse for failure.
It appears to be more promising to focus on other aspects of motivation to engage students in learning activities.
It certainly appears to be beneficial to have different representations of ideas when developing understanding, but this does not demonstrate that individual learners have a learning style.
How are you encouraging students to take responsibility for identifying how they can succeed in their learning and develop their own successful strategies and approaches?