Learning Styles: the debate

Despite widespread acceptance and application of Learning Styles, there is nevertheless still some debate about the validity of the concept.   Proponents of Learning Styles maintain that adapting classroom teaching methods to suit students’ preferred style of learning improves the educative process.   However, opponents of Learning Styles theories maintain that there is little empirical evidence to support this proposition.

A report on the scientific validity of Learning Styles practices (Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2009). "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105–119) concluded that an adequate evaluation of the Learning Styles hypothesis requires a particular kind of study.   The report suggested that students, having been identified (for example) as “visual learners” or “auditory learners”, should then be randomly assigned to teaching groups focusing on either “visual” or “auditory” learning strategies – so that some students are “matched” to their preferred style, whereas others are “mismatched.”   Students’ test scores (for the same test) at the end of the experiment would show whether “matched” students scored better than “unmatched” students – thus indicating whether or not the Learning Styles hypothesis is correct.   To date, however, no such rigorous study has been carried out and the evidence for Learning Styles theory is largely anecdotal.

Nevertheless, large numbers of teachers and trainers are persuaded that Learning Styles are a factor in the effectiveness of their students’ learning.

Although the VAK Learning Styles model is perhaps the most widely used, largely because of its simplicity, Susan Greenfield (Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford) argues that adopting such an approach is “nonsense” from a neuro-scientific point of view.   She argues that human beings make sense of the world through our senses...