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Mythbusting: do learning styles really capture the way you study?

Daniel Bil

Are you a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner?

If you are a student, you have almost certainly been asked this question before. If you are a teacher or parent, you have almost certainly heard about the theory of ‘learning styles’ – the idea that people learn best when information is presented in their preferred medium, whether it’s through textbooks, diagrams, or even LEGOs. It has been around for almost a century, and has become a staple of Western education.

 Which is why most people would be floored to learn it’s not necessarily true.

Despite how ingrained it is in our education, there is a distinct lack of evidence behind the learning styles theory. Reviews of the literature – including investigations by the Australian Council for Education Research — have time and time again debunked the persistent myth and concluded that they do not improve student outcomes. Some studies even suggest they might be doing more harm than good.

So, what exactly is the problem with labelling yourself with a learning style? 

Three issues with ‘learning styles’

Fitting a round peg in a square hole

The way students learn is nuanced in a way that three or four ‘learning styles’ simply can’t capture. Pigeonholing yourself into rigid, usually ill-fitting categories can be stifling: as a 2010 review by ACER puts it, the concept “perpetuates the very stereotyping and harmful teaching practices it is said to combat.” Though it’s true that different students engage with content in unique ways, it isn’t necessarily true that one student can only learn through pictorial diagrams, whilst another is restricted to learning via listening.

You set limits on yourself and your capabilities

If you believe yourself to be a kinaesthetic learner, then you will also believe things like “I’m no good with diagrams” or “I don’t retain written information”. These negative beliefs mean you are limiting what you think you are capable of, and you train yourself to ‘switch off’ whenever you see content presented in a way other than your preferred mode of learning.

By limiting your study methods to the few ‘tried and tested’, but not necessarily effective, tools, you stop yourself from exploring options that fall outside your fixed ‘learning styles’ category, but actually work better for you. Not helpful.

You’ll avoid seeing information from different perspectives

To an extent, yes, it’s great to learn in a way which works best for you — be it through diagrams, textbooks, videos, and so on. However, improvement comes not when you play to your strengths, but rather when you challenge your weaknesses. Being able to see concepts through a variety of different media – including those that do not come as naturally to you — is an important step towards broadening your understanding of the content.

In addition, restricting they way you receive content means that you’ll likely become bored and disengaged more easily, since you’re repetitively encountering the same content from the same angle. This can be especially discouraging if you are dealing with a content heavy subject for which there’s lots of information to remember.

Three effective alternatives

So, rather than boxing yourself into outdated categories, what can you do to see a real improvement in your scores? 

Reflection and self-evaluation

Although it can sometimes feel tedious and trivial, writing up reflections is worth every second it takes. Whenever I do a test or exam with my SuperClasses students, I always get them to do a self-evaluation afterwards noting what things they did and did not do so well, and what study techniques might have lead to these outcomes. The first step in improving is recognising what needs improving.

A simple template to follow when completing a reflection in response to a marked assessment might look something like this:

  • Compare how you think you went with how your teacher thought you went (something you might want to chat face to face with your teacher about).
  • Identify topics/areas you think you did well in, as well as those you think you need to improve on in time for exams.
  • Identify what you did in terms of assessment preparation. What was effective? What was a waste of time? Will you use any of the effective techniques again?

Take feedback onboard

A teacher’s or tutor’s feedback is like printed gold. It can pinpoint exactly where your weaknesses lie, so you know what to patch up. This is another reason we keep out SuperClasses sizes so small — it allows our tutors to give detailed and insightful feedback to each student. 

The next time you get a test or essay back, take a few minutes to read through the feedback and make a genuine effort to improve on the points made. Taking criticism, even constructive criticism, can sometime be difficult — but remember that your teacher’s end goal is always to help you improve.

Find what works best for you

Rather than letting a learning style tell you how you should study, experiment with a range of study techniques and find which ones ‘click’ for you based on experience. As mentioned, study is extremely individual and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, meaning it is up to you to seek the right resources and advice to find what works best. Sure, it might not always be smooth sailing, but it’s ultimately more than worth it. 

What’s next?

The important takeaway is that improvement comes when students personalise their learning and target the weaknesses in their knowledge. While this is a priority at Connect, unfortunately it is rather the opposite of what learning styles encourage you to do.

To put yourself in the best position for your SACs and exams, now’s the time to stop relying on outdated educational mindsets, and start tailoring your learning to your personal needs.

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