L is for Learning Styles

21 03 2010

When I wrote An A-Z of ELT, I was not entirely persuaded by the argument that learners can be categorized in terms of their preferred learning style, whether visual, aural, kinesthetic etc.:

So far… there is no convincing evidence that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that a preference in one area predicts success in language learning.  In fact, it is very difficult to separate learning style from other potentially influential factors, such as personality, intelligence, and previous learning experience.  Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training (p. 116).

However, I was prepared to accept the case for “meshing” learning style and teaching style: “If the learner’s preferred learning style is out of synch with the type of instruction on offer, then success is much less likely than if the two are well matched.”

It seems I was wrong. Alerted by a somewhat sensationalist headline in a recent Guardian Weekly (5th March) to the effect that Learning styles ‘are hogwash’, I hunted out the research study on which this shock-horror claim was based: ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’, by Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. in Psychological Science in the Public Interest,  9/3, December 2008 , pp. 105-119.

While the authors do not  dismiss the notion of learning style outright,  they cannot find any evidence for the ‘meshing hypothesis’, i.e. the idea that learning is optimsed when instruction is matched to the individual learner’s learning style. Sifting through a host of studies on learning style, they found no study that proved conclusively that a teaching approach that was effective for one style of learner was NOT effective for a different style of learner. They concluded, therefore, that “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice” (p. 105).

Given this lack of evidence, why has the case for matching teaching and learning style  persisted?  The authors of the paper suspect that this belief  “may reflect the fact that people are concerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals” (p. 107).  Moreover, learning styles offer unsuccessful learners (and their parents) a stick to beat their teachers with: “If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system ..  is responsible [and] that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style” (p. 107-8).  Learning styles, in other words, are a convenient untruth.

Rather than pigeon-holing learners  into aural, visual, verbal, etc.-types, the authors of this study “think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning” (p.117, emphasis added). “Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open” (ibid.).  Besides, an approach that focuses on what learners have in common, rather than on what differentiates them, is ultimately more practicable. The alternative–small groups of like-minded learners getting individualised instruction– is a luxury few educational institutions or systems can afford.

So, is this how I should re-write the last sentence of the entry on Learning Styles in An A-Z?

…Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training. Nor are there grounds (apart from wishful thinking) to believe that adapting teaching style to learning style produces any increments in learning.



49 responses

21 03 2010

A sigh of relief all round? Apart from never being convinced by the idea of learning styles, I never knew how they could be usefully applied to a large (and presumably differently-styled) class!

I wonder if the need to provide evidence ahead of the lesson (ie the need to identify aims and rationale for the aims in a lesson plan) hasn’t partly driven the learning styles agenda – if ‘skills work’ is one way of defining and breaking down what is going to happen in a lesson, then ‘learning styles’ is a neat way to justify it.

Better to have class activity (in the non-count sense) that involves all the skills as much as possible, and thus engages all learners as much as possible.

21 03 2010

This one’ll set the cat amongst the pigeons! :->

21 03 2010
Karenne Sylvester

And yet, we in the classroom rather than just sitting behind desks theorizing life, personality and the way learning all works will see how our students choose one way of receiving information over another.

And yet, we in the classroom will hear our students as they say “well, I’m a visual person so if I match this vocabulary to a photograph then I can remember it better.” And we will trust that either they know themselves well enough to know how they learn and if not that, then we will trust that well, if they think so, it is justifiable enough to respond this.

And yet, we in the classroom, busy doing rather than just psycho-analyzing, will know that our students excel in some things and don’t in others.

And as we stroll through this life, we will look upon the work of the world’s artists, inventors and geniuses and we will see, hear and feel within the core of our common sense that they achieved their greatest successes by simply concentrating on their greatest abilities.

Our logical brains will simply recognize that there are those with greater talents in very specific areas and rather than jump on to a hogwash bandwagon wonder at the definition of expert instead and also wonder if the psychologists ever realized their own – or if it wasn’t simply journalists and newspapers aching to rekindle sales figures and advertising fees.


Not to tell you what to do at all but my take is this: one must always be excessively careful trusting “expert” information because it, like the wind, changes according to who’s blowing it.

So for now, as a teacher I’ll keep watching, listening and moving and I’ll just keep mixing it all up until Pluto is a planet again.


21 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

“…we in the classroom will hear our students as they say “well, I’m a visual person so if I match this vocabulary to a photograph then I can remember it better.”

True, Karenne, we do hear students say this – but we didn’t use to. Ten years ago no student came to me and said: “I failed the exam because I’m a visual person, not a verbal one”. Now, it’s common practice. It seems to be part of a particular rhetoric – a rhetoric of individualisation, if you like – that dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, but which has permeated mainstresam educational theory only recently – and which blames learning difficulties, not on one’s own incapacities or even laziness, but on a system that fails to acknowledge or to accommodate individual differences.

21 03 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Scott, I take your point

But with regard to “blaming learning difficulties not on one’s own incapacities or even laziness but on a system that fails to acknowledge or to accommodate individual differences.”

Um… I agree that we should blame the educational system and I say this.. out of experience.

I hope I can: as a dyslexic not diagnosed until adulthood yet diagnosed in the top 5% of all American high school students in terms of IQ when 15 or 16 (God, sorry to all British readers who will see this as blowing trumpets) – sorry, just trying to make a point) and that further study, learning or even writing (which I do prolifically now) was an incredibly difficult feat to master and I did so by consciously focusing on the visual and physical.

I guess what I’m trying to say – like even the psychologists – let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“While the authors do not dismiss the notion of learning style outright, they cannot find any evidence for the ‘meshing hypothesis’, i.e. the idea that learning is optimized when instruction is matched to the individual learner’s learning style. Sifting through a host of studies on learning style, they found no study that proved conclusively that a teaching approach that was effective for one style of learner was NOT effective for a different style of learner. They concluded, therefore, that ”there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice” (p. 105).”

I have a cousin who only needs to hear a foreign word once to recall it and pronounce it absolutely perfectly. She speaks: Spanish, Japanese, German, French and Russian. We all know that she has an “ear” for languages – we wouldn’t need a psychologist to tell us that.

I have an aunt who had major social issues when she was a child and had to be with a family member (one of her older siblings at all times until she was 7 or 8). She learned and mastered High School math before she learned how to read. We all know that she has a weird talent and can do stuff in her brain that the rest of us can’t.

I know a lot of white folks who can’t dance.* We all know they don’t “feel” the music like Caribbeans do. We don’t know why but we know that what they hear isn’t what we hear and their bodies don’t respond the way ours do.

Allz I’m saying iz people are different and let’s celebrate these differences, expand upon them, rather than resort to churning out lots of averages.

Today when the scientists look at Einstein’s brain they tell us that there was nothing which made his brain any different from ours.

We (all) know it was different.

Personally I expect it’ll take about 20 more years and then there’ll be a huge article pointing to something that hasn’t been discovered yet and we’ll find out how different brains have different electrical impulses or something….

Just because today’s experts say one thing doesn’t mean that tomorrow’s won’t have another story.

Doesn’t it all boil down to trusting one’s own experience? I agree that the student ten years ago probably wouldn’t have used the term “visual learner” but the label doesn’t mean anything more than he now has the lexis to say what he knows about himself.

I personally am thankful for individualization and in fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m so pro-technology so that learners can learn at their own pace and what they’re good at.

Nick, I abhor a system which churns out blind sheep and factory workers and yey-sayers and think-what-you’re-told-to-thinkers and believe that the primary function of the previous educational systems was to do this. I shudder at the thought of trying to make everyone in this world all the same level of good at math or anything else because those who excel won’t be able to while waiting around for those who can’t and… you know what, out the window will go all our geniuses.

I like your last paragraph though but think that we cannot now comment on whether Picasso or Beethoven would not have learned a new language by accessing their “style” … we have no idea whether they could or not – it’s equally possible that they could have 🙂 Oh, I have a story about a little genius in one of my classes in Ecuador who was labeled by his teachers as “stupid and lazy until he came into my hands … but oh, oh, oh, dear, this is way too long already!

Bye, boys, nice debate, gotta go


– p.s. Nick, Lindsay was talking about multiple intelligence rather than styles: they’re different: i.e. compare Beethoven -RayCharles -Miles Davies

-p.p.s please accept the white man can’t dance as humour and please do feel free, reader to object and describe your physical intelligence and learning style with regard to this issue. 🙂

21 03 2010
Nick Jaworski

I think we hashed this out pretty well when Lindsay brought up the subject a while back. My opinions remain the same and are in line with you and Luke.

It’s just so impractical to try and create lessons as if each student needs their own approach and we can’t possibly teach them unless we do it their way. How can a teacher create a lesson that caters to 20-50 different people at the same time?

And, like you mentioned, it simply becomes one more way to blame the teacher and take responsibility off the learner. Isn’t one of the most important things we’re trying to do is build autonomous learners? Than why so much focus on the teacher’s mode of instruction?

I love this paragraph “Rather than pigeon-holing learners…”

We know the brain is plastic and that anything can be learned, even ways of learning. The brain can rewire itself and nothing is permanent. Rather than pigeon-hole the student and make them become over-reliant on one way of learning (that doesn’t have any effect according to the neurologists anyway) why don’t we teach students to learn through multiple pathways?

Neurologically, the more ways information is processed and the more ties it has to other information, the more likely it is to hardwire and the easier it is to retrieve. By accepting a student as having a dominant learning style, I think we are actually doing a disservice to the student.

I think the only value in accepting a learner belief on this level is the placebo effect. It’s just like if a student is obsessing over grammar. I can’t just deny him grammar because he’ll reject my instruction and see me as refusing to negotiate. We have to meet them half way, but, eventually, I’ll keep directing the student towards less and less formal grammar focused instruction as I know it’s beneficial for their learning. I would do the same with the erroneous learning style belief. Meet the student half way, but then begin to develop lots of ways of learning that enable them to store information better.

I really disagree with Karenne on the “we know our students excel at some things and don’t at others.” This is exactly the problem that believing in learning styles brings up. Of course it’s true, but instead of helping the student become a better artist when they can’t draw or a better mathematician when they have trouble with numbers, we’re saying, “Let’s focus on your strengths and let your weaknesses stay weak.”

We need to encourage learners to work on all aspects of themselves and to improve on their strengths as well as their weaknesses. I for one am a terrible artist, but after a year of art class in high school I became excellent. I also excel at math and languages. Hmmm… People these days often reject their ability to learn new things because they buy into these false left-brain/right-brain or visual/auditor/kinastethic conceptualizations. Let’s reverse this trend.

Ok, so Beethoven was good with music, but could he have learned a new language through it? Picasso was a good painter, but would painting have helped his language acquisition? A natural proclivity or talent doesn’t mean it transfers over to other aspects of learning and life. These are very unrelated things.

We should 1) Teach learners a number of optimal learning strategies and 2) Provide information in a way that activates as many centers of the brain as possible to create multiple nodes and links for new pieces of information.

22 03 2010
Darren Elliott

As usual, The Onion has a very thoughtprovoking take on this…

Parents Of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum

22 03 2010

Yay! for the hogwashers. And death to the lesson plans that ask for evidence of which learning styles you are catering to. From now on, I will put a reference to the article which I am just about to download.

The subheading given to this article on another website is, “Learning Styles: it’s a little bit more complicated than that,” which sums up how I feel about them. They offer the reassurances that We Are All Different and that it is possible to tame the chaos, but the latter is not true whilst the former is so bloody obvious that telling everybody is pretty pointless. It is patently ridiculous to assume that people learn one way or another – far more honest is to say, “We have no bloody idea how people learn, but this might give you food for thought.” To his credit, this seemed to be what Howard Gardener was saying with his “multiple intelligences”. And to be particularly charitable, I have to say that I did like the main premise which seemed to say that just because somebody can’t join MENSA, it doesn’t mean that they’re thick. To shove a sock in Karenne’s trumpet ;-), just because somebody is seen as having a “high I.Q.”, it doesn’t mean that they are very clever! It just means that they are reasonably adept at spotting patterns in words and numbers. You will have to take my word for the fact that I mean no offence at all by this.

All I really mean is that I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that teachers have to perform miracles with their students. Learning styles is one of the many weapons that says that they do. I don’t think we need to work wonders with students who have been failed by a battalion of other teachers. I think we just need to create a welcoming and secure atmosphere within our classrooms and direct people towards further learning opportunities. When people are clearly struggling, we can sit with them and try and find out what’s going on/wrong. But if a learner said to me, “Look, I’m a kinaesthetic learner. This class isn’t helping me,” I’m afraid my reply would probably be something along the lines of, “And what exactly are you doing about this?”

22 03 2010
Karenne Sylvester

It’s okay, Diarmuid, I don’t mind my sock… I actually have very little respect for the whole IQ testing business to be honest and also think that they are culturally biased… and never ever get me started on what I think of exams :-).

22 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Two inspired insights from the preceding comments:

Nick’s “I think the only value in accepting a learner belief on this level is the placebo effect.” And, of course, we shouldn’t understimate the placebo effect, either in medicine or in teaching. Making the learners feel valued by acknowledging their specific needs and circumstances – even if this means indulging some of their own folk theories about learning – is an essential characteristic of good teaching – a very dogme one too, I might add. Which connects to Diarmuid’s Lao Tse-like wisdom:

“I think we just need to create a welcoming and secure atmosphere within our classrooms and direct people towards further learning opportunities. When people are clearly struggling, we can sit with them and try and find out what’s going on/wrong”.

Borrowing from medicine again, this would seem to be an approach not dissimilar in spirit to that which an effective doctor might offer. More effective, at least, than trying to divine what the patient’s ‘humour’ is (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric…etc) or asking them their star sign. Likewise, the effective counselling of learners in terms of their learning potential does not have to assume an elaborate taxonomy of discrete learning dispositions, as in much of the learning styles literature. As has been suggested already, this might have the counterproductive effect of foreclosing options that might otherwise offer viable learning paths.

22 03 2010

I completely agree, which is what I was trying to say about meeting the learner at least halfway. I think that was clear, but just wanted to be sure 🙂

22 03 2010

Learning behaviour 1 – 0 Learning styles

It took a while, but finally we have seen the light that has, hopefully, diminished the hogwash.

Some people in the classroom want to learn and are good at it, others aren’t and don’t want to be there. We have to come up with a way of accommodating these polar opposites.

22 03 2010

I have to disagree wholeheartedly with this, and I speak from experience. Categorizing students so arbitrarily like this is just wrong. I don’t think all students who perform poorly in school “don’t want to be there”. And if that is the case, it’s because they’re frustrated because they’re not learning!

I did very well in high school in language arts and foreign languages, but my math skills are so poor that my 5th grader now laughs at me when I’m trying to calculate grades and I have to ask him how to convert a 150 point scale to a 100 point scale. I struggled for YEARS to learn math, to find someone who could teach me math; I even broke down in tears during my college algebra final exam because I JUST DON’T GET IT. And you can’t tell me I “didn’t want to be there”, because I went through great lengths to get a Master’s degree.

This is very worrisome, that some teachers are refusing to accept the fact that some kids just don’t learn well by listening to the teacher lecture all day. This is just bad, lazy teaching. Sure it takes some time and effort to incorporate differentiated lessons, but you’re supposed to be educating all children, not just the ones who are good at writing and math. God forbid teachers put some effort into making their lessons more interesting and meaningful, rather than just standing in front of a class full of different people reading from their lecture notes.

22 03 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Now, see, Adam, Scott et al… this is why I’m for at least the “appreciation of” learning styles… if we’re student-centered teachers then we’re not about blaming the students for their lack of learning.

C’mon, people – or didn’t you guys ever have lazy teachers who only did their job’s worth?

22 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Karenne – and, of course, you are right: it’s not the learners’ fault, necessarily, if learning isn’t always successful. But that’s not what the article in question claims. It simply says that the case for the benefits of MATCHING learning style and teaching style is unproven. I’m adding that it may be counterproductive. This is NOT an argument for boring, chalk-and-talk teaching. It’s an argument for GOOD teaching. But GOOD teaching is not necessarily individualised teaching – or need not be.

22 03 2010
Karenne Sylvester

I’m sorry to come back and I really hope I’m not being a nuisance but one of my students said to me today (in our dogme conversation lesson… and I was just bursting to come back and add this as soon as I got home.. so sorry, but I have to because it was just so utterly profound 🙂 )

“If we made students who aren’t meant to use their hands all day use their hands all day, then the people who were forcing them would be taken to court for child abuse yet everyday teachers force students who can’t use their brains all day to use them and that’s okay, that’s education.”

But okay, yes, re your comment – strict matching… hmm…

sometimes/sometimes not – but honestly I don’t think many teachers have ever been really able to do this – especially not in huge classes – for me the point of knowing about the “learning styles and the multiple intelligences” means being aware as a teacher to present materials in a multitude of ways and in terms of individualizing, using this “knowledge” to create environments which feed into autonomous learning… e.g. I have a bunch of links on my Ning and then the students choose what they want to visit when they’re done the task in the BL part of our course – whether it’s grammar practice yik gap-fills or videos or blogs aimed at learners.

But recently when working on a false friends project, one of my students openly discussed the fact that he couldn’t stand the process of finding pictures and transferring them to powerpoint (the others were happy and enjoying themselves) so I gave him grandmaster rights over the google-doc spreadsheet and got him to do the English-English translations for everyone else – so dunno, sometimes it’s good knowing what students excel at / or don’t excel at or hate doing!

Right, I promise I won’t be back again!

I think.

23 03 2010

I’m not dismissing the notion entirely, but if young Lazy McWannadoss doesn’t want to be in the classroom, it doesn’t necessarily mean that appreciating McWannadoss’ learning style would have had any tangible benefit.

Of course there are lazy teachers who merely clock in and out, but going ‘that extra mile’ and having an “appreciation of” learning styles won’t alone guarantee a higher level of performance. Young McWannadoss might be happier and pay to attend the follow up course at the language school though, so go on then, you win.

22 03 2010

The most vociferous critics of learning styles come from the field of psychology where learning styles is considered a pseudo science (whatever that’s supposed to mean). Now I’m sure that psychological studies have never got anything wrong and have no self-interest in protecting their realm of “expertise” so it seems that we must accept it.

But why is it that some people learn how to use a piece of software by clicking on icons to see what happens, while others ask their neighbour to show them how it works, and others read the handbook, and others watch youtube videos, and yet others go on a training course?

I’m sorry, but that sounds like a lot of different learning styles to me. If you want to argue about whether styles and approaches are two different ideas then OK, but you are still going to come back to the issue that different people learn best in different ways.

As a teacher, that doesn’t mean I have to provide 30 different strategies in a single lesson, but having 2 or 3 and rotating the methods sounds like good practice to me. Where this becomes particularly important is when we delve into Co-operative Learning. If the teacher is seen as a facilitator, and not just a knowledge provider, then the teacher needs to manage different resources which allow the learner to pick their own way through the learning maze.

As with all information, you need to know where it comes from and ask yourself what could influence the results. The religious war between the protagonists of learning styles and the world according to psychology leads more to a propaganda exchange rather than any rational debate.

22 03 2010
Nick Jaworski

I would disagree Olaf. This is not a war between competing theories and is not merely just vague theory as some would like to make out. It has more to do with hard neuroscience and the way the brain works.

Different types of information are stored in different areas of the brain. For example, auditory information is stored in one section and memorized as a sound, while visual information is stored in another and memorized as an image. Factual or “hard knowledge” is stored in yet another area.

Think about it. If I see a picture of two birds chirping I am memorizing an image. This is no way helps me remember the sound. The same if I read a description of birds chirping as “a pleasant sound made by birds that tends to vary in tone and pitch.” That’s stored in the knowledge section. It doesn’t help me remember the sound Now, if I want to actually learn the sound, I need to hear it. Regardless of my supposed learning style, a sound must be learned as a sound, an image as an image.

This goes for knowledge as well of course. If I want to remember knowledge, I need to learn it as knowledge, how I come across that knowledge is irrelevant.

What is important for memory retrieval is the amount of chunked information and the number of connections to other pieces of info. If I see the pic of the birds chirping, read a definition, and hear it, I’ve got multiple links to the same piece of information and all are chunked under the simple heading “chirping.” This makes recall very easy. This is why drama is so effective in language teaching because so many memory pathways are created and utilized at once (emotion, movement, sound, image, speach, etc). It’s also why memorizing translation flashcards fails because the information is disconnected and only inputed into knowledge and visual banks.

What you are saying about people’s preferred way to learn something goes back to what Karen said. Of course people have ways that they like to learn because it is the strategy they’ve used the most and so it’s the most developed network in the brain. However, this doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way and they will still benefit much more from multiple types of input rather than one.

Of course we need to meet our students on their own terms to aid the learning process. but then it’s our job to help them learn better than they were learning before. As I said above, we also need to develop a student’s weaker areas as it’s imperative for a good learner to learn information in a variety of ways as to create a number of neural links for easy storage and retrieval. We also need to teach them how to chunk it and fit chunks into bigger chunks so more can be remember more quickly and easily. For example, rather than learning isolated phrases, you will be given the context “at the airport” and all new phrases and vocab. learned will be filed under this section. That’s why contexts or “schema” are so important.

Once this information is inputed, the new neural pathways need to be fired again and again until it becomes hardwired. That’s why repetition of language in different contexts helps so much. You are in effect not only making the learning information permanent, but you are also connecting it to other schemata for more links, hence easier recall.

22 03 2010

Hi Nick

I’ve really no interest in how the brain works but I’m sure for some people it’s very interesting. What you say may, or may not be true, but the problem is that the technical analysis doesn’t help in a classroom situation.

The key thing is that learners make choices about how they feel they learn best, and I most certainly don’t see it as my role to alter that, providing that they are content with their learning style. In fact, trying to influence that is liable to have a very negative effect if I start insisting that they do things another way. Their way may not be as efficient as it’s possible to be, but it is their way and I don’t feel I have the right to demand otherwise.

Can you really say that a student who is learning successfully should be subjected to a different learning method because psychologists say that it is “better”? Personally, I’m more than happy to provide a choice of learning paths for students and if their chosen path is successful (and I guarantee you they will not all choose the same path), who am I to say there is a better way?

22 03 2010

“If I see the pic of the birds chirping, read a definition, and hear it, I’ve got multiple links to the same piece of information and all are chunked under the simple heading “chirping. This makes recall very easy.”

While you think you are creating a variety of memory pathways (and you may well be), from the outside, this class clearly looks like one directed at at least three different learning styles. So why isn’t everyone happy?

22 03 2010
Nick Jaworski

Welcome back Olaf

It does help. If you know how it works, then you can optimize learning strategies. Saying you shouldn’t change a student’s habits is like saying we should teach a student who loves to learn through grammar but hasn’t improved their English in 15 years more grammar. We aren’t doing our jobs as teachers. Quite frankly, yes, we should alter how students THINK they learn best if it is not effective or could be done better.

You’re misunderstanding the difference between a bad teacher forcing students to do something and a good teacher slowly helping their students learn to the best of their ability.

Furthermore, we’ve been teaching for years and we know what works. We’ve had the training. That’s why we are teachers. If the student knows best and you can’t help him improve, then why should the student come to you in the first place?

Who are you? You are the teacher with the training and experience that’s in a position to help the student to the best of your ability. You’re there to help them find the best learning strategies and if that means changing their current one, then of course you should encourage that.

What do psychologists have to do with anything? The science is explained above. The technical explanation helps a lot as it guides us to optimal learning strategies. Why encourage speaking? Because speaking is a separate section of the brain and won’t be learned receptively. Why discourage purely grammar translation? Because it impedes the creation of a map for the 2nd language. Why use multiple types of input? Because it aides retention and recall.

22 03 2010
Alastair Grant

Worryingly, I think the only trend that will never go out of fashion in the world of ESL is the lynch-mob mentality towards “discredited” theories. I don’t think we should abandon any of them – learning styles included.

One reaction against this may be that some distrust the “labelling” of certain types of learner; pigeon-holing seems to beg too many questions. But in my direct classroom experience, I have found that, for example, my Experiential learners DO enjoy listening/the social side of the learning process more than the Covergers.

Maybe this is making the facts fit the theory and maybe it’s actually a culmination of personality, previous learning experiences etc. but whatever the “genealogy” of such diagnoses, they nonetheless give us a greater insight into the needs of our learners. For this reason alone, we shouldn’t bin these theories just because a fresh one has come along.

Going back to Karenne’s “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” point – I couldn’t agree more (i.e. please let’s not!). To exhume the corpse of PPP for a second: anyone who’s tried to teach a class of 30 adolescents in my Latin American context will know that trying any other approach is “taxing” to say the least! Unlike many disciplines, ESL isn’t a “constant revolution” on previous theories – we have inherited many useful techniques from them all (exhibit A: drilling, from Audiolingualism) and continue to do so.

22 03 2010
Anita Kwiatkowska

To begin with, I wholeheartedly agree with Olaf, Karenne and Jill.

Learning about people’s different learning styles meant one thing for me – a teacher should work harder and think more before entering the class. It meant more preparation in order to provide variety so that every student would benefit from what s/he is exposed to.

On the other hand, we have the learning style of the teacher. A here’s where the the problems usually spring from.
At the very beginning of my teaching career I relied a lot on visuals, writing words down and individual work. Why? Because all of the above made me learn and remember things better.
Now I also do drama, play with various forms of drilling and organize students in pairs/ groups. For a learner like me, all these are a waste of time but I believe that some students might learn more this way.

Going back to the article – my seven years of experience teaching children indicate that, on the whole, it makes sense to cater for different learning styles in class. Now that I try to present my students with a wider variety of activities and tasks (suitable for different learning styles or intelligences), they remember a lot more words and phrases than before.

Whether what I believe is good for a visual learner makes him learn better, I do not know. Maybe it’s simply the variety that matters.

I’d very strongly oppose the idea of forcing the students to reject their preferred style of learning in favour of experimenting with the other ones. They might do so because the teacher tells them but it’ll most likely lead to frustration and slowing down the learning process itself.
I was always picked on by teachers for taking notes in form of colourful mind maps and graphs. That was a bad thing, I was told. A student should take notes by writing sentences. So I did. At home I was drawing mind maps again – otherwise I wouldn’t remember a thing.

22 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Anita, thanks for your comment. I think you might have put your finger on it here:

Whether what I believe is good for a visual learner makes him learn better, I do not know. Maybe it’s simply the variety that matters


Whatever else the learning styles movement has (or hasn’t) done, it has broadened the range of options for teaching, especially for young learners.

22 03 2010
Anita Kwiatkowska

Thank YOU for writing about the research.

Whether the findings are accurate or not, they made me question something I was sure of. And there’s nothing more challenging than that 🙂

23 03 2010

This is the first time I comment in such a serious discussion so I’m quite unsure if what I’m saying is not too trivial, but I’ll have a go.
Anita, I think there is another side to what you’re saying. Many students don’t know their learning style (especially young learners, but adults as well). They say that they are visual learners but you can see that they do really well listening. So again our task is to show them various possibilities and options and let them choose whatever is comfortable and effective for them. And I would agree with Nick that we should give them as much varied input as we can (at least I understood it this way) and make them use all the channels. Without forcing them but just giving an opportunity. I myself am more of a tactile learner and probably this is the reason why I feel comfortable teaching children – according to some reasearch I read (don’t remember where) most of the children are kinesthetic. Then they change into visual not because they want (if you can talk about preferences here) but because they are forced to by school education. So is it the learning style we’re born with or is it the one we are educated in that is “our style”? Most of my adult learners claim to be visual but then many of them learn wonderfully from songs and remember things I SAID not wrote. I would stick to catering for all the styles as much as possible activating as many channels as possible.

22 03 2010

Isn’t usabilty more important than provability when it comes to teaching ideas? I can imagine it would be quite easy to find “no evidence” for the communicative approach being effective or a whole host of other ideas which teachers and learners appreciate. Personally, I have found learner styles and Multiple Intelligences useful tools for understanding my own learning experiences and building variety into my classes. They also make a lot of sense in terms of evolutionary psychology, if you accept that we all have elements of all 3 styles or 8 intelligences or whatever in our genetic make up and that individuals can vary in the spread they have. I agree that pigeon holing people as “visual” or ” intrapersonal” is pretty foolish and nicely satirised in Luke’s link to the Onion.

22 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

It’s true, thet one needs to retain a healthy dose of scepticism about any one-off study, even when it’s a refereed article in a reputable academic journal. But, in fact, the claim that learning styles are – at best – a slippery concept has been around a while (and underpinned the doubts I expressed in the A-Z entry.

For example, in Chapter 11 (‘Individual Learner differences’) of his monumental The Study of Second Language Acquisition, (OUP, 1994), Rod Ellis concludes:

“At the moment there are few general conclusions that can be drawn from the research on learning style. Learners clearly differ enormously in their preferred approach to L2 learning, but it is impossible to say which learning style works best. Quite possibly it is learners who display flexibility who are most successful, but there is no real evidence yet for such a conclusion. One of the major problems is that the concept of ‘learning style’ is ill-defined, apparently overlapping with other individual differences of both an affective and a cognitive nature. It is unlikely that much progress will be made until researchers know what it is they want to measure”.

That whole extract is quoted approvingly by Zoltán Dörnyei in his (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition (Lawrence Erlbaum). What’s more, Dörnyei (again) and Peter Skehan, in a chapter on individual differences in The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (2003) ed. by Doughty and Long (Blackwell), having reviewed the literature, make a similar point about lack of clarity:

“It is difficult to decide whether learning styles are independent individual difference factors or if the term is merely a convenient way of referring to certain patterns of information-processing and learning behaviors whose antecdents lie in a wide range of diverse factors, such as varying degrees of acquired abilities and skills, idiosyncratic personality traits, and different exposures to past learning experiences”.

They add: “What is now needed is more evidence of educationally linked applications of such concepts. If such evidence is forthcoming, style concepts may become more central in SLA once again”.

22 03 2010
Jessica Mackay

The multiple factors influencing learning styles, strategies and motivated behaviour was one of the arguments Cathy Doughty used , very convincingly, to support the case against course books in her seminars on Instructed SLA in the University of Barcelona in 2009-2010.
Although the jury is very much still out on Learning Styles, she advocates TBLT as the approach which best adapts to IDs and individual needs rather than the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of published materials. A TBLT course would start out with needs analyis and diagnostic measures to be able to adapt the content accordingly.
Of course we don’t all work in a context where this approach is feasible. I certainly don’t, but don’t we teachers and even modern coursebooks, try to cater for the variety of learning styles in an average class by providing, as much as possible, an eclectic mix of activities?
Nel (2008: 53) says that learning styles are a relatively stable learner characteristic and as such teachers are not able to exert much influence over them. She then goes on to quote Cohen and Dörnyei (2002: 176) “it is also possible that learners over time can be encouraged to engage in ‘style stretching’ so as to incorporate approaches to learning that they were resisting in the past.”

22 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

It seems that neither the Guardian Weekly nor I were the first to notice the article debunking the ‘meshing hypothesis’ in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

The WordPress function that “automatically generates” related sites has come up with the following:


23 03 2010

A fascinating debate – albeit a bit confusing. “Learning styles” seems to be a term that is used by some to capture the rather obvious fact that everybody is different and therefore a rejection of “learning styles” is taken to imply a preference for standing up in front of a class and lecturing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I reject “learning styles”, I am rejecting the notion that one person is predominantly visual and needs to have things presented to them in a visual way for effective learning to take place; I am rejecting the idea that somebody is predominantly an “activist” and needs to be active is effective learning is to take place; I am rejecting the idea that a person is predominantly Abstract Sequential and needs to have ideas explained on an abstract level and put into order. I am NOT rejecting the idea that everybody is different. In fact, I am going one step further thatn Gregorc, Honey and Mumford, Kolb etc and saying that EVERYBODY has their own individual learning style.

However, it is not the teacher’s job to play to each individual learning style and I resent being told that it is. In a language class, specifically in an English language class, there are so many factors at play – not least whether the students actually want to be there- that I think that teachers are being set up to fail if it is intimated that a Successful Teacher Must Play To Individual Learning Styles.

No, for me, a teacher’s job is to try as far as possible to engage their students. That’s it. No mention of learning styles; no suggestion that activities need to cater to the kinaesthetics, the gustatories or the olefactories; no mention of natural intelligence and walks in the park. Just the requirement to “try and make it as engaging as possible.”

We could overegg the pudding and resort to learning styles; or we could base people’s learning on what they had for breakfast. Actually, I suggest that the latter has far more to do with a student’s learning than the former. Discuss.

23 03 2010
Jessica Mackay

I agree!
I look back at what I wrote earlier and it looks like an essay. I’ve been reading far too much recently. In 20 years of teaching in Spain, I have never once had a student tell me that they didn’t do well in this exercise or this exam because it wasn’t compatible with their learning style (having said that it will probably happen next week, I’ve heard everything else.)
Back to my hero Dörnyei again; teachers exert little influence over our students’ learning styles as these are trait characteristics, but we can enhance and even change their motivation by making our lessons as was mentioned in the previous post “as engaging as possible”. Part of engaging our students is providing variety. So by doing so, aren’t we also going some way to catering to the different learners in the group and their highly individual constellations of learning styles?

23 03 2010
Nick Jaworski

Some great comments here. I agree most with Diarmuid. Engage the students. Don’t be boring and the rest will fall into place. A teacher can’t hope to cope with all the demands of every learner and being told we should is quite presumptuous. Isn’t the whole point to encourage leaner autonomy and to get them learning on their own?

I also agree with many commentators that this theory of learning styles brought a great amount of reflection to the profession and emphasized the need to take the learner into account. However, this doesn’t mean we should hold onto the incorrect portions of the theory in the face of evidence simply because it rather incidentally brought about a change of attitudes.

I think comments like Anita’s mind maps point to what I was saying. The idea of a visual learner should be discredited, but the fact she was recycling information, writing, and using colors all aid to connect the info to more parts in the brain and to wire the info. It’s the variety and repetition that works more than anything.

We can never forget motivation either. If I like visual things, I’ll learn better from them simply because I have a higher level of involvement and interest. It all goes back to Diarmuid’s “engage the learner.”

Marta made an excellent point as well. Learning habits are created most often from what came before. If you create mind maps, you will continue to do so. If you are used to visual lessons, you’ll continue to prefer visual lessons. Learning habits change according to what is most often done and it makes much more sense for students 1 by 1 to adapt to 1 teacher rather than a teacher run themself into the ground to adapt to 25 different students.

In the end, let’s keep the variety and the students at the center. Also, let’s do away with a theory that is now too limiting and that has little to no hard evidence to support it.

26 03 2010

Frank Coffield is worth reading on learning styles…. If you want a meaty tome, then take a look at this: http://www.hull.ac.uk/php/edskas/learning%20styles.pdf which looks into most of the research that has been done on learning styles.

For a briefer consideration, have a look at page 23 of this document: http://www.s7colleges.com/learning-innovation/_pdf/Just-Suppose.pdf

31 03 2010
Philip Kerr

Questioning of learning styles goes back a long way … Back in 1978, a review of 15 studies that looked at attempts to match learning styles to approaches to first language reading instruction, concluded that modality preference ‘has not been found to interact significantly with the method of teaching’ (Tarver, Sara & M. M. Dawson. 1978. Modality preference and the teaching of reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities 11: 17 – 29). The following year, two other researchers concluded that [the assumption that one can improve instruction by matching materials to children’s modality strengths] appears to lack even minimal empirical support. (Arter, J.A. & Joseph A. Jenkins 1979 ‘Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal’ Review of Educational Research 49: 517-555)
The labels used to describe learning styles have undergone many changes in the last 30+ years, but among all this talk of ‘visual’, ‘aural’ and ‘kinaesthetic’, I’m surprised no one has used the ‘NLP’ word. Research in the 1980s/ 1990s into the claims of NLP pretty much rubbished the idea that individuals have ‘preferred representational systems’ … what is interesting to me is how and why such discredited ideas have proved so tenacious. But perhaps not with readers of this blog?

31 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Philip – I know that this is a topic you have already aired in blogland (see http://sixthings.net/2009/10/16/six-things-about-multiple-intelligences-that-you-might-not-know/) but it’s one that will not go away! I share your bemusement as to “how and why such discredited ideas have proved so tenacious”. One answer is suggested in the article I quoted in my post, i.e. their persistence “may reflect the fact that people are concerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals”. That is to say, the push towards individualisation and learner-centredness has foregrounded individual differences over shared curricular goals. Ironically, this impetus towards individualisation has involved creating discrete and mutually-exclusive learner ‘types’, a development that is, in turn, reflected in the discourse that perpetuates ethnic and cultural stereotyping – of the kind: “Asians are collectivist (as opposed to individualist)” – that is to say, an obsessive concern for categorisation as a basis for pedagogy. It seems to me that the individualisation of learning (whether on the basis of ethnicity or of learning style) is a one-way, and possibly dead-end, street.

3 04 2010

For some reason this headline made me think about this discussion… ‘Parents Of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum’

How many of you take into account the smell preferences of your learners? If you don’t, you can’t really claim to be taking learning styles into account.


When can we expect ‘How to teach the olfactorily inclined’, Scott?

PS – I expect a mention in your acceptance speech when it wins you an ELTon.

8 04 2010
Josh Lange

Firstly I am a big fan of your work, Scott, but some of these posts regarding Learning Styles are ill conceived.

There was a book out in the 90’s called “Learning Styles in EFL” edited by Joy Reid, which is a good read for those whose opinions on your blog seem to be outmatching their knowledge on the topic. Such things as ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ as well as ‘field dependent/independent’ are key concepts which came from Learning Styles and can very effectively help struggling learners. New technologies are making it easier for different learning styles to be addressed even in large classes, and perhaps most importantly thinking about one’s own ways of receiving information aids the teacher in differentiating instruction – a key element for motivation and professional development!

But one thing that is important to differentiate from Learning Styles is Multiple Intelligences. MI Theory suggests that an ‘intelligence’ is a particular aspect of every individual which, when strengthened and combined with environmental/personality/genetic factors could lead to expertise in a discipline. A ‘learning style’ refers to how people receive input. So, you can be a Auditory learner and never be able to compose music, but you can’t have strong Musical Intelligence and stagnate in the musical domain.

For more on Multiple Intelligences and how it relates to Language Learning, see the FAQ section on my website…but never ever confuse the two, as many teachers on the DELTA courses are mistakenly taught to do!!!!

Josh Lange
Dresden, Germany

12 05 2010
Matt Ledding

I have really enjoyed the comments here. I wouldn’t be commenting on this EXCEPT… while looking at some incredibly beautiful art showing spelling, great for lower level students to discover vocab, or for higher ones to analyse, there was the reason explaining why she made it, and the results it gave supporting visual learning… any other theories, aside from the pictures being memorable?

Check out the art and the story at :


12 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hmm. “The best spellers are visual. She is visual.”

All spelling is visual, in that is involves the visual representation of language as written text. All learners (apart from the blind) are visual.

The power of the mother’s images is not that they are images but that they are powerful images, and, moreover, that she has invested this amount of time and care into supporting her daughter’s reading development, something that the child must surely respond positively to. If the child has a learning style, it is probably the style of learning that predisposes her to the support, attention and commitment of her caregivers.

19 05 2010
Adrian Underhill

Thanks for all these provocative thoughts, and…..
Are we not caught in the old trap of trying to pigeon hole the complexities of human behaviours into neat categories, to reduce the unknown to the known, and then dismiss it by saying well it’s clearly not true?

I suppose we all have experience of making breakthroughs in our learning by doing things a bit differently (in the 70’s Buzan’s Use You Brain had a huge and beneficial effect on my studies), or when we were moved from one teacher to another, or changed from one subject to another, etc.

We know there is diversity in how we learn and how we teach, and we know that some appear to do it better than others, so we design elaborate teacher training programmes (called Celta and Delta amongst others) to encourage teaching to correspond more closely to the currently fashionable take on how learners learn best. What I have found useful about attempts to classify learning styles is not how much “truth” there is in any classification system, but the awareness raising opportunities it offers the teacher to reflect on weightings and tendencies and biases in their own classroom talk and presentation. (eg personally I default to words, but students tell me they like my diagrams (and my silences!) and ask if I could do them more).

I think of a host who wants to offer a nourishing meal to a number of people they don’t know very well, so decides to put on the table multiple small dishes of many different flavours, ingredients, colours and texture. Each guest can gravitate to what they find good, and maybe stay with it or work out from there, but all leave the table nourished. In what ways can I apply that story to my teaching? Well, Multiple Intelligences has been a very useful untruth in this respect, as it offers a kind of convenient (and temporary and incomplete) checklist to enable me to ask Is there any of this ingredient, or that flavour, on my teaching table? And does that tell me anything about variety in my teaching? And is there an experiment here for me to try out?

Considering different takes on learning style can be a reflective exercise in multiple perspectives for the teacher. I have used many of the untrue efforts at learner style classification in my teacher training programmes, not in order to say This is how it is but rather to ask Can this tell you anything about your teaching? I am not a fan of psychometric tests, nor of NLP, nor of VAK, nor of most of the learner style classifications available in the literature and on the web. But I am a fan of diversity and multiple perspectives. And isn’t that the point, once we get past the mud-pie games of true and untrue and into the complex world of human relativity and perspective, we can find tremendous reflective leverage in learner style proposals, as long as we don’t believe them?

One last point, in fact there are two psychometric test that I have enormous respect for, and although I don’t believe that they represent the truth they do have the power to stimulate mature reflective insight into how we relate to others in work and learning settings, to such an extent that they have the power to enable us to see difference, to see that other people are not just being awkward and slightly deficient version of me, they actually are wired up a bit differently. Both of these psychometrics are ones I have encountered hardly at all in ELT and consistently in my work outside (for the National School of Government in training senior civil servants and for Bath University School of Management as a tutor on fast track executive MBA programmes). These are The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (based Jung’s work) and Team Roles (based on Belben’s work). Both of these offer finely textured ways of seeing difference. (I was so taken with the liberating power of the MBTI untruths that I actually, at my own expense, trained to become a practitioner of the indicator…..)

May I suggest for the D section of the next edition of A- Z the currently and usefully fashionable word: Diversity ….?

20 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Adrian for that thoughtful – and challenging – post. It’s true that the learning styles literature helps remind us of the ‘infinite variety’ of learner types, and how it behoves us to adapt our pedagogy accordingly. I’m not sure that meeting learner diversity with activity variety is necessarily the only route though. To pick up on your food analogy, you could argue that – yes – a table spread with tasty tapas (or mezzes – depending on your location!) is the best response to your guests’ varied tastes. But it’s a lot of work. An alternative is to create a single dish, but to do it so exquisitely well that everyone (barring the most die-hard vegans) is delighted and satisfied. If your guests want variety, let them go to a restaurant. If they want quality – they come to me! (I’m not sure how far I should let this metaphor run – I may have overstretched it already!)

26 09 2010
Sue Thomas

Hi Scott
I have been dipping into some of your work and reading critically as Delta asks us to do :-).
This post is more challenging than most, I find, verily the cat among the pigeons. (I rather like, but am still ‘only’ chewing on … the Dogme though).
I apologise if I sound too critical, but I sometimes ask myself if it isn’t all becoming rather ‘ esoteric’ and ‘academic’ and far far removed from the reality of the student and their learning experience. Sometimes, it somehow seems the same sort of superior attitude our former generations practised – in schools and in social settings?
Coming to the exquisitely done dish…hmm…like I just said, will have to be done by a master cook, no less. None of your run off their feet hardworking, day in day out cook( read teacher) could put an exquisite dish (lesson) on the table every single time. So let the guests, family (students) rather be contended with frozen takeaways – little tit bits that the cook might have been able to hustle up to suit to a few different tastes, being of no value. Quite.
Thanks for the discussion though.
Enjoying it immensely!

26 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sue, for your comment. I agree that the metaphor of the lesson- as-exquisitely-prepared-dish-that-pleases-everyone is a bit far-fetched. Maybe better to think of a ‘staple diet’ menu instead: wholesome, easily prepared, digestible, and cheap: like baked beans – that will please everyone moderately, but that won’t over-tax the skills of the teacher.

21 04 2011
James Quartley

Scott, I’m not sure it is far-fetched. It takes hard work, but it is possible, occasionally, to have the pieces and time to come together in such a way. The exception rather than the rule.

27 01 2014
Scott Thornbury

Couldn’t resist adding this link (thanks to Graham Stanley who alerted me to it): http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

27 03 2014

great post. why won’t these zombies die?

9 09 2016
Eric Christopher Jackson

I think learning should be more fun by using any style we can combined with interactive technology.

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