What is your preferred learning style?

Perhaps you are the kind of person who likes to learn through reading – the sort who will happily immerse themselves in research books and reports and come out having soaked up everything they need to know.

Or maybe you find it easier to learn if you can look at a different types of visual information, such as graphs, charts, photographs, maps or videos.

Others say that they learn best through sound, so listening to a podcast or a recording of a lecture might be particularly well-suited to their needs.

And of course there are those who ‘learn by doing’, the people who need movement and physical contact in order to maximise their learning abilities. This is sometimes referred to as the kinaesthetic learning style.

Many people have an instinctive sense of their own learning style: they will explain not just that they are, for example, a ‘visual learner’, but also how that categorisation manifests in their everyday life.

You can also do a test. There are plenty of websites offering free, multiple-choice quizzes to help people identify their own personal learning style. One such example offers four options in response to a prompt about how participants find their way: rely on verbal instructions from GPS or from someone traveling with me; head in the general direction to see if I can find my destination without instructions; like to read instructions from GPS or instructions that have been written; rely on paper maps or GPS maps.

You can even spend some money on an expert analysis. Last year, an article in The Athletic revealed that Livingston F.C. had hired a psychologist to assess the squad and identify the learning style of each player. This apparently meant that manager David Martindale was able to “tailor how he delivers information to suit whether they are visual, tactile or audio learners.”

But there’s a problem with all of this – it’s not true.


Just last month, an article in Nature warned that “the learning styles myth” – for which it says that there is “no substantial evidence” – can have serious negative effects for students.

A few months earlier, in February of this year, Ball State University’s Teaching Innovation Blog published an article asking “what we can learn from the learning styles myth.”

But none of this is new.

In 2021, a review by Swansea University found that despite being “ineffective” and even potentially “harmful to students”, learning styles remains widespread.

Two years before that, the American Psychological Association argued that even the belief in learning styles, as opposed to the implementation of them as policy, “may be detrimental”.

In fact, as far back as 2009, the idea that ‘students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles’ was included in a book that set out to debunk '50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology'.

According to the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University, “the overwhelming consensus among scholars” is that there is “no scientific evidence” supporting the idea that matching teaching approaches with learning styles is beneficial for students.

“While all learners can develop subjective preferences for studying or digesting material, studies deny that students learn better through a self-reported learning style. Instead, scholars increasingly call for educators to replace ‘neuromyths’ with resources and strategies rooted in evidence from cognitive and adult learning theory.”


So if learning styles are a myth, and have been repeatedly debunked for more than a decade, why does the concept persist?

Why are books still sold advising that teaching approaches be matched to learning styles? How are consultants and psychologists managing to make a living out of offering student assessments and support for tailoring lesson plans?

Why is at least one Scottish university asking student teachers to plan lessons which “include a mix of the following learning experiences known as VAK: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic”?

The most obvious explanation is that the idea of different learning styles makes intuitive sense because it seems to reflect something that we do know for sure: that everyone is different.

We like different things, prioritise different interests and adopt different approaches, so the notion that there should be different styles of learning seems, in many ways, to be self-evident. To some, it may even look like an especially effective form of differentiation.

Learning styles also offer an explanation for something that teachers see all the time – the instances when a change in delivery, or a shift in the style of an explanation, sparks a eureka moment from a student who previously seemed to have hit an intellectual brick wall. Maybe the problem was that the initial approach didn’t suit their learning style?

Something about learning styles may also speak to the pursuit of equity in education, because if the theory is correct then any student can be helped to achieve, so long as we get the style of instruction right and, in doing so, meet their learning needs.

It all seems like such a progressive, inclusive concept that many people really want it to be true – but that doesn’t make it so, nor does it justify wasting time and resources on something that has no positive impact.

Sadly, wishful thinking (or commercial rhetoric) all too often outweigh evidence, and when a myth like learning styles takes hold it can prove near impossible to shift.