Are Visual Learners Disadvantaged? No, No, and Still No

Matching students' learning styles with teaching styles is not important.

Posted Sep 05, 2019

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Lecturing not visual enough?
Source: Pexels

"I am a very visual learner so I do not learn well in classes with a lot of lectures."

After having taught for over 25 years, I hear variations of that comment a lot. I love conversations with teachers and students and have heard a range of complaints: Teachers who only use one teaching style, students who want more "hands-on" learning, students who need to see diagrams and figures. With the start of schools around America this week, the notion of learning styles may be on the minds of many. Do learning styles matter?

Apparently, if you ask the majority of K-12 teachers, the answer is a resounding yes. Does the research bear this out? A resounding no.

Here is the bottom line: While we all may have preferences for how we like to experience new material and interact with it (aka learn), we do not have to be taught in a style that matches those preferences.

While it may seem like common sense to assume that we learn better when taught in a style that matches our preferences, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. Yet this belief is widely held. In a recent study, Ulrich Boser of the Learning Agency sent out a survey to 515 educators using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service. A little under half responded to a brief survey of beliefs about educational practices. The results were shocking to any academic informed about learning science.

A whopping number of educators endorsed educational myths. For example, 77 percent believed we are left-brained or right-brained. (Reality: While our brain is specialized for different functioning, the idea of being "right-brained" has no scientific basis.) The biggest offender? Nearly all the educators, 97 percent, endorsed catering students into one of several learning styles to guide design of instruction.

Researchers in cognitive and educational science have repeatedly tried to knock this idea down but it persists. A large part of the reason may be that we all have preferences for how we like to learn. We mistakenly believe these preferences are important.

I first noted this over 11 years ago. Claudia Rinaldi and I assessed the learning style preference of 45 students and divided them into groups based on their learning preference. Each group then completed four assignments, each highlighting one of four learning preferences (auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic). Group scores on each assignment showed that designing assignments to match students' learning styles did not lead to better performance but that active learning positively related to overall learning. Scores on the auditory and tactile assignments were significantly different but not in the hypothesized direction (i.e., auditory learners did not perform best on the auditory assignment). Nonetheless, students preferred assignments that matched their particular learning styles (Rinaldi & Gurung, 2008).

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Evidence-informed teaching is important
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Of course, this was one study with a small sample size. Here is what really convinces me to not worry about meshing teaching style with learning: Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork conducted a significant review of the research and found no evidence that learning styles and teaching styles meshing were important.  

So if you hear a student complain or a fellow parent critique an instructor, be armed with this knowledge: Learning is improved when teachers use a variety of styles and, in fact, being taught in a style different from your preference may even help you learn more.

Too many teachers, students, and parents believe the myth. Even today, the misperception seems to persist. Enough.