Might the “Neuromyth” of Learning Style Contain a Kernel of Truth?

by Joseph Shieber

Needlework (Depicting the Five Senses)

If you spend enough time around cognitive psychologists, you’re likely to hear at least one of them complain about the notion of individual “learning styles.” Indeed, psychologists consider the concept of learning style — the idea that some students are visual learners, say, as opposed to auditory learners — to be one of the most enduring neuroscientific myths in education

In a recent piece for The Conversation, the psychologists Isabel Gauthier and Jason Chow suggest that one reason why the belief in learning styles is so persistent among educators is that “the evidence against the model mostly consists of studies that have failed to find support for it.” Gauthier and Chow go on to suggest that their research disconfirms predictions of the “learning style” hypothesis.

Gauthier and Chow are experts in studying individual differences in perceptual recognitional abilities. Their first studies involved evaluating people’s abilities visually to match or memorize objects from different categories, like birds or planes.

In that earlier work, Gauthier and Chow “found that almost 90% of the differences between people in these tasks were explained by a general ability [they] called ‘o’ for object recognition. [They] found that “o” was distinct from general intelligence, concluding that book smarts may not be enough to excel in domains that rely heavily on visual abilities.”

Of course, these results — given that they are limited to visual recognition — would have no bearing on the learning styles hypothesis. However, Gauthier’s and Chow’s more recent research has involved testing other perceptual modalities: first touch, and, more recently, listening.

What Gauthier and Chow found is that object recognition abilities strongly correlate across sense modalities. In other words, people who were good at identifying objects visually were also good at re-identifying objects by touch, or by listening.

These more recent results clearly do call into question the idea of learning styles. As Gauthier and Chow write, “This relationship between recognition abilities in different senses stands in contrast to learning styles studies’ failure to find expected correlations among variables. For instance, people’s preferred learning styles do not predict performance on measures of pictorial, auditory or tactile learning.”

Gauthier’s and Chow’s research is fascinating in its own right. However, I couldn’t help wondering if the persistence of the “learning styles” idea rests more on the fact that educators aren’t as careful as cognitive psychologists in teasing apart what they might mean by the notion.

For example, in a 2009 review of “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” for the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers found “ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for  different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information.” Furthermore, as Gauthier and Chow’s work demonstrates, object recognitional abilities are distinct from general intelligence — meaning some students might excel at relying on their visual abilities to acquire information, whereas others might prefer to rely on their “book smarts.”

Furthermore, there IS strong evidence from psychology to suggest that there are in fact differences between the various sense modalities when it comes to the acceptance and retention of information. For example, people are more likely to act on recommendations that they hear as opposed to recommendations that they read. There is also evidence to suggest that people are much worse at remembering information that they hear, as opposed to information that they acquire through vision or touch. Finally, recent studies have suggested that people think more analytically about information that they read as opposed to information that they hear.

Taken together, these results suggest that, at the very least, psychologists may be overly vehement in decrying educators’ persistent beliefs in the “neuromyth” of learning style. For example, psychologists themselves have CONFIRMED that students do have preferences for learning using particular sense modalities, as well as that — as noted above — different sense modalities have unique impacts on how people accept information or retain that information in memory. 

These results would imply that, first of all, even if preferred learning styles don’t correlate with learning performance, they might nevertheless have an impact on the learning experience. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, there might also be reasons for educators to pay attention to learning style more generally. Even if there might not be any reason to tailor learning styles to particular students, there would seem potentially to be reasons to tailor learning styles to particular tasks — for example, using visual information for tasks that place an emphasis on analysis over intuition, or reading rather than listening to information in order better to remember it.

All of which suggests that the “neuromyth” of learning style might well contain some kernel of truth.