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Learning Styles: Truth or Myth? Are There Alternatives?

Learning styles
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: There are three primary learning styles. Visual learners learn best by seeing information (graphs, maps, and pictures), auditory learners learn best by hearing (speeches, lectures, recordings) and kinesthetic learners learn by doing (or touching, or manipulating materials).

Each person, experts say, has a preferred learning style. You might have taken a cute little test or quiz to determine your own preferred learning style, and if you are a teacher, you’ve been told to vary your lesson plans and teach to all three learning styles.

The three primary learning styles 

Visual learners profit most by learning from books because their memory retains the printed words, sentences, and paragraphs.

They may remember with little effort that the paragraph about the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini was printed on an upper left-hand page of their history book. If they go to a cinema, they will remember actions and incidents that they saw on the screen, while the spoken word becomes hazy and fades away.

In contrast, auditory learners benefit more from lectures than books since their memory retains what they pick up through the ears. 

They may be able to repeat a conversation almost verbatim and, at the same time, have difficulty describing what the person with whom they conducted this conversation looked like. If they attend a cinema, the sound of words and music will stay with them, while the actions are soon forgotten. 

Among the preponderantly auditory people, musicians are foremost, especially those who can repeat a composition they have heard but whose score they have never seen.

Tactile/kinesthetic learners learn best by a hands-on approach. Tactile refers to touch, and kinesthetic to movement, two learning modalities that are closely related. Kinesthetic learners often perform well as athletes, actors, or dancers.

It is interesting to note that the same types occur among animals. The eagle, for example, relies for its survival entirely upon its marvelous eye, enabling it to detect its prey from an altitude so high that a human could hardly distinguish a city from a forest. The deer’s survival rests mainly on its ear, which catches the slightest snapping of a twig, whereas the dog has developed a sense of smell that far surpasses its sight and hearing.

A learning styles test

It is claimed that 65 percent of people learn visually, 30 percent tend to retain information after hearing it, and approximately 5 percent pick things up through touch or practical imitation.

One could do the following test to test if a person’s learning style is preponderantly visual or auditory. The testee must not know the test’s purpose in advance; otherwise, they will become too conscious of the associations they form.

Read the list of 10 words below to the testee. Tell them to write the first word on a piece of paper, preferably a noun or verb, which comes to their mind when they hear a word you call out. Here are the ten words:

  1. wall
  2. cake
  3. book
  4. noise
  5. file
  6. river
  7. letter
  8. bird
  9. flag
  10. hat

Then, look at the words which the testee wrote. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

A.  They may have written words like these:

  1. picture, paper, ceiling
  2. flour, sugar, icing
  3. page, illustration, text
  4. propeller, music, siren
  5. paper, draw, box
  6. water, boat, fishing
  7. envelope, computer, stamp
  8. feather, wings, egg
  9. cloth, mast, signal
  10. ribbon, straw, felt

B. They may have written words like these:

  1. hall, ball, value, valet
  2. make, bake
  3. look, hook, bug
  4. poise, choice, moist
  5. pile, mile, fine, fire
  6. liver, ringer
  7. latter, ladder, ledger, lecture
  8. flirt, hurt, birth
  9. bag, drag
  10. bat, chat, flat

Of course, these words are only examples, and the variety of words the testee may have written in response to the words called out is almost unlimited. But whatever the response is, a survey of their answer will show whether more words are similar to Group A or whether more words are similar to Group B.

As you see, the examples in Group A contain words that somebody with a vivid imagination may see if they think of a wall, cake, book, and so on. The examples in Group B indicate words similar in sound to the words you called out. Therefore, if you check the testee’s paper, you must compare the words you gave them with the words they wrote down. If you find more words belonging to Group A, the testee is preponderantly visual; if you find more words belonging to Group B, they are preponderantly auditory.

More learning styles 

Some scholars distinguish between visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary learning styles. Honey and Mumford distinguish between activists, reflectors, theorists, or pragmatists, while Gordon Pask describes a learning style called serialist versus holist.

To use the scheme of Honey and Mumford:

  1. Activists learn best from activities in which there are new experiences and challenges;
  2. Reflectors learn best from activities where they are allowed or encouraged to watch, think, and ponder;
  3. Theorists learn best from activities where what is offered is part of a system, model, concept, or theory, and
  4. Pragmatists learn best from activities if there is an obvious link between the subject matter and a “real life” problem.

To use Gordon Pask’s scheme, when confronted with an unfamiliar area:

  1. The serialist will tackle the subject step by step, building from the known to the unknown with the simplest possible connections between the items of knowledge.
  2. The holist, on the other hand, will seek an overall framework and then explore areas within it more or less haphazardly until they have filled in the whole.

A disservice, according to some

While it is generally accepted that a teacher or lecturer should try to accommodate the students’ different learning styles, some say yielding to learning styles is doing students a disservice. “The students will benefit more from adapting and becoming versatile, more able to respond both to formal teaching and learning from experience than they will from having everything made as easy as possible for them,” James Atherton writes in an article titled Learning styles don’t matter.

In the real world and real-time, learning styles theory is often an academic luxury, states Atherton. Imagine a class of forty students with a serialist pragmatist kinaesthetic learner, sitting next to a holist reflector primarily visual learner, sitting next to a holist activist auditory learner, sitting next to a … “Can you even imagine how you might adapt your teaching to suit each of this bunch?” he asks. “How many times might you have to re-cast a point to make sure it connected with all these minds? And how many of them would switch off each time you repeated it?”

One could also imagine these students going off to the workplace where, as employees, they might have nobody to coach them according to their preferred learning styles. Yet, their learning ability significantly impacts their employment, promotion prospects, and overall income or business success.

A myth, say others

“There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “It’s one of those things people think ‘they’ have figured out, that science knows it to be true,” even though science says precisely the opposite.

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, said that “from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense.”

The most conclusive research, completed in 2008, does not conclude that learning styles are wrong but rather that no one had developed a theory with any evidence behind it. That’s a pretty good reason not to use it, says Willingham. “We’d rather know something is right before we use it in the classroom,” he notes.

Some leading experts believe the myth of preferred learning styles is not just a benign misconception but is likely causing harm. As Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues write in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, the approach “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses.” They add: “Students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them.” 

There’s also an economic case. Many learning style questionnaires and training programs are expensive. “Given the costs of assessing students’ supposed learning styles and offering differentiated instruction,” write Rohrer and Pashler, the news of the lack of scientific evidence for learning styles “should come as good news to educators at all levels.”

A viable approach to learning styles

Even if the learning styles theory were true, we should not overlook that a child must be prepared for the real world and real-time. Therefore, it is essential to teach children a versatile learning approach from a young age, which means that they will be able to use multiple senses and cognitive skills when learning. We must improve not only their strengths but also their weaknesses.

There is no doubt that a person’s weaker senses can be improved. A blind person, being deprived of sight, usually develops all the other senses extraordinary. To learn to read Braille, for instance, their tactile sense must be developed to a remarkable degree. This fact is important because it shows without the help of complicated tests that every sense can be developed and improved.

By learning to use all their senses, the learner’s ears will eventually come to the aid of their eyes and their hands to the aid of their ears, thereby opening three channels to their mind instead of only one. In the same way, cognitive skills can be developed and strengthened so that learning can be made easier.

Edublox offers cognitive training and live online tutoring to students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.


Atherton J S. Learning styles don’t matter. Doceo.co.uk website.

Calder J & McCollum A. Open and Flexible Learning in Vocational Education and Training. London: Kogan Page, 1998.

Do learning styles matter? Wilson Quarterly Archives. Spring 2010.

Furst B. Stop Forgetting. London: Morrison and Gibb Limited, 1964.

Honey and Mumford. University of Leicester website, retrieved 6 September 2016: https://bit.ly/2JsntY3

Lilienfeld S et al. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.

Pasher H et al. Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 9(3), 3 December 2008.

Rohrer D & Pashler H. Learning styles: where’s the evidence? Medical Education, vol 46(7), 2012.

Wootten S & Horne T. Training Your Brain. London: Hodder Education, 2007.