The Learning Styles Controversy - Arguments For and Against

A collection of arguments regarding the validity of learning styles

What is the controversy over learning styles all about? Is the theory valid? Does it really work in the classroom, or is the claim that there is no scientific evidence for its validity the final word?

Are some students really visual-spatial learners? Auditory? Do some people need to do something themselves before they learn it, making them tactile-kinesthetic learners?

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Think You're an Auditory or Visual Learner? Unlikely.

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nullplus - E Plus - Getty Images 154967519
Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, investigated the learning style theory for NPR (National Public Radio), and found no scientific evidence to support the idea. Read his story and the hundreds of comments it garnered. The social networking this piece inspired is also impressive.

Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director at Vanderbilt University, shares what he learned about learning styles at the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio in 2011. Bruff offers a lot of detailed references, which is nice.

The bottom line? Learners definitely have preferences for how they learn, but when put to the test, these preferences make very little difference in whether or not a student has actually learned.  The controversy in a nutshell. More »

From Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, comes this article about 2009 research showing no scientific evidence for learning styles. "Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity," the article states. More »
Bambu Productions - Getty Images
Bambu Productions - Getty Images
Education.com takes a look at learning styles from both points of view - pro and con. Dr. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, says, "It's been tested over and over again, and no one can find evidence that it's true. The idea moved into public consciousness, and in a way it's perplexing. There are some ideas that are just sort of self-sustaining." More »

"How can you not believe people learn differently?" That's the first question in Willingham's Learning Styles FAQ. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book, When Can You Trust the Experts, as well as numerous articles and videos. He supports the argument that there is no scientific evidence for the learning styles theory.

Here's a bit from Willingham's FAQ: "Ability is that you can do something. Style is how you do it. ... The idea that people differ in ability is not controversial—everyone agrees with that. Some people are good at dealing with space, some people have a good ear for music, etc. So the idea of "style" really ought to mean something different. If it just means ability, there’s not much point in adding the new term. More »

Student using laptop in classroom
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This is from the Cisco Learning Network, posted by David Mallory, a Cisco engineer. He says, "If accommodating learning styles does not increase learning value, does it make sense for us to continue [generating content in multiple formats]? For a learning organization this is a really key question and it has generated a lot of passionate discussion in education circles." More »
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Dave and Les Jacobs - Cultura - Getty Images 84930315
ASTD, the American Society for Training and Development, "the world's largest professional association dedicated to the training and development field," weighs in on the controversy. Writer Ruth Colvin Clark says, "Let's invest resources on instructional modes and methods proven to improve learning." More »