Debunking the Myth – There Is No Such Thing As “Learning Styles”

I read some one’s Blog today and they referenced Learning Styles.

I had to take the way-back machine to the Summer of 2001 to find an article published in my firm’s newsletter “Pursuing Performance” regarding Learning Styles.

I had asked Sigmund Tobias to write an article regarding some controversial comments he had made at a Masie conference at Disney World earlier that Spring. His article follows.


But first…from the collective wisdom of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia – 5/8/2007 –

Learning Styles
It is commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli or information. Based on this concept, the idea of individualized “learning styles” originated in the 1970s, and has gained popularity in recent years. A learning style is the method of learning particular to an individual that is presumed to allow that individual to learn best. It has been proposed that teachers should assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student’s learning style.


– originally published in Pursuing Performance – Summer 2001 –

Debunking the Myths
There Is No Such Thing As “Learning Styles”

By Sigmund Tobias

Instructional designers are often urged to adapt instruction to students’ learning styles. The persistence of the learning style concept is amazing—a testament to the gullibility of even well-informed individuals who ought to know better. It seems that advocates of learning styles have never heard of the history of ATI research, which attempted to provide a database for adapting instruction to student characteristics and found many thorny problems. It is probably fair to say that the popularity of adapting instruction to learning styles is matched only by the utter absence of support for this idea.

Claims for adapting instruction to learning styles, of course, assume that there are stable, replicable interactions between measures of learning styles and instructional methods. A number of reviews of ATI research (Tobias, 1989; Corno & Snow, 1986; Gustaffson & Undheim, 1996) have reached fairly similar conclusions about the types of interactions that have been verified by research. These reviews suggest that students with limited prior knowledge of a domain, or lower ability, require substantial instructional support in such forms as better organization of the content, increased feedback, provision of prompts, and similar instructional augmentations in order to learn optimally. Students with higher levels of prior knowledge, or higher ability, are optimally instructed with lower levels of instructional support.

Unless I, and the other reviewers of research in this area, have missed the publication of tons of replicated findings, there is no evidence of stable interactions between learning styles and instructional methods. Why then do otherwise knowledgeable educators and educational researchers persist in making unverified claims for learning styles? I can only conclude that they adhere to what Jeanne Chall (2000) in her last book called a romantic, as opposed to rational, view of education. Chall cites other romantic notions that have little verified empirical support, such as the whole-language approach to reading instruction, open education, and discovery learning, to name only a few. Sometimes an idea may appear so logical, and/or so deeply related to the values held by individuals, that it becomes an article of faith. Believers cling to their fancies irrespective of research findings. I wish they would develop a similar fixation about the Brooklyn Bridge, because I would love to sell it to them again and again.

Some adaptations to learning styles may lead instructional developers to teach concepts using multiple illustrations. In such practices, the instructional material may illustrate concepts, presumably the complex ones, in different ways, leading learners to form multiple representations. The designer may assume that the multiple illustrations work because learners choose the representation that is most congruent to their learning styles. It is probably more accurate that such instruction is effective because the multiple illustrations induce learners to devote more time to these concepts. Of course, more studying time leads to increased learning, as all the research on allotted and engaged time has amply shown. Clearly, however, there is no basis for attributing such enhanced learning, if it occurs at all, to learning styles.
The issue of adapting instruction generally, as well as adapting media, to student characteristics is dealt with in several chapters of a recent handbook (Tobias & Fletcher, 2000) sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Division of Educational Psychology (Division 15).

Sigmund Tobias is a Distinguished Scholar at the Division of Psychological and Educational Services of the Graduate School of Education, Fordham University at Lincoln Center. He may be reached at:
113 West 60th Street, New York, NY 10023-7484
212-636-6448, Fax: 212-636-6416

Chall, J. 2000. The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom. New York: Guilford

Corno, L., & Snow, R.E. 1986. Adapting teaching to individual differences among learners. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed., pp. 605-629). New York: Macmillan.

Gustafsson, J.-E., & Undheim, J.O. 1996. Individual differences in cognitive functions. In D. C. Berliner & R.C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology (pp. 186-242). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Tobias, S. 1989. Another look at research on the adaptation of instruction to student characteristics. Educational Psychologist, 24, 213-227.
Psychology, 35, 389-390.

Tobias, S., & Fletcher, J.D. (Eds.) 2000 Training and Retraining: A Handbook for Business, Industry, Government, and the Military. New York: Macmillan Gale Group.


Wikipedia continues…

Evidence or lack of evidence?
Learning-styles theories have been criticized by many. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for these models and the theories on which they are based. Many educational psychologists believe that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds.[1] According to Stahl,[2] there has been an “utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.”


Are there “Learning Styles” and what does that mean?
And if there is no such thing, then what?

Perhaps it’s just another “thing” with some face validity and someone selling something new?

Your thoughts?

12 comments on “Debunking the Myth – There Is No Such Thing As “Learning Styles”

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  7. Guy, we are in violent agreement…over 35 years ago (as a flight instructor in the Air Force) I discovered learning styles and thought that was the answer to why some learners learn as efficiently as others when exposed to the same content and instructor. I was so sure of learning styles and their efficacy in instructional design I decided to complete my dissertation on learning/cognitive styles and their utility on designing instruction. After completion of my dissertation and concomitant research, my view changed entirely, and ever since I have been research the learning styles “misconception” (Note: I do no think learning styles are a myth, just an independent variable that cannot be verified or quantified). That said, for the past several years, I’ve been presenting at conferences on the efficacy [and futility] of accommodating learning styles when designing instruction. To that end, here is a link to my most recent presentation on learning styles, complete with the more relevant research I have found over the past 10-20 years (–What_the_Research_Reveals.swf .

    “The human dynamics of learning is so complex that attempting to isolate independent variables that may affect learning is like trying to determine the direction of an automobile by studying petroleum chemistry” (me, conceptualizing at the 20 mile mark in the 1980 Honolulu marathon)


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  9. Hey Guy, how are you? Dropping by to see this, and wanted your opinion on something.

    I’ve always thought the idea of trying to design instruction to account for individual learning styles was at worst insane or at best impractical, but I have to admit that I haven’t really dug into all the research on both sides, either. Always been too busy improving performance.

    Certainly there is psychometric research that indicates that people possess varying sizes of a learning funnel (nurse the sippy cup / drink from the firehose) based on levels of verbal/mathematical ability and reasoning. MBTI (albeit a weaker, ipsative, psychometric model) indicates that people have preferences for dealing with the world around them and how they absorb info. So, even though my instincts have always guided me away from developing training around styles, I’ve also never quite shut the door completely, in terms of remaining open to see what the latest research shows, over time. (At one point in history, people argued against the world being round, right? And since I’m an INTP, I rarely shut any doors completely. ;-)

    Recently I attended a brief workshop on 4MAT at a conference. It reminded me somewhat of a Briggs/DiSC view of the world, applied to learning. There were no real recommendations of adapting ISD for a particular style, but instead seemed to emphasize including all the bases, which makes sense and seems to be Ruth Colvin Clark’s take on things, too.

    Have you been exposed to 4MAT? What do you think? For me, on the plus side, it’s a good reminder to include the Why, What, How and If (or What If) perspectives. On the downside, this just seems like common sense to me, versus actually being based on “learning styles.”

    Thoughts? Should I go have my head examined?


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