I first learned about learning styles from my middle school guidance counselor. Standing before the class in our monthly “guidance” session, she gave the following proclamation:
“There are three learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. This test will help you determine which style comes most naturally to you.”
We nodded our heads, picked up our pencils, and took the test just like any other. Once the counselor guided us through the test’s complicated rubric, I found that my learning style was visual. I carried that knowledge with me through the rest of school and never questioned it.
I’ve always loved this neat explanation of three learning styles, and I’ve even used it to justify why I struggled with subjects such as math (“it’s just not visual enough,” I’d complain to my mom, even though the very visual subject of geometry was one I struggled with the most).
So you can imagine my surprise when after nearly ten years of believing in it, I learned that the traditional idea of learning styles is wrong.
Yep. Learning styles is a myth. I’d actually planned to write a pretty straightforward article on the different learning styles and how knowing yours can help you study better, but then Thomas pointed me to this piece from Wired. In it, psychologist Christian Jarrett explains that the idea of different learning styles simply isn’t supported by existing research.
So instead, today’s article is all about debunking the myth of learning styles and focusing on what really matters: learning techniques. By the end of this post, you’ll know what you actually need to focus on to learn and recall material.
I promise you, it’s fascinating stuff, so let’s get started!
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The Myth of Learning Styles
And even within each of the learning styles models, there’s no clear agreement about what each of the styles means. Just Google “learning styles” to see how ambiguous the situation is.
Even more important than the disagreement about the number of styles, however, is the problem with the larger “learning styles” model.
As Christian Jarrett explains in the Wired article mentioned above, most studies on learning styles reveal that people perform best when the learning style they use is most appropriate for the material they’re learning, not the style they prefer:
“…usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.”
– Christian Jarret, “All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes”
Furthermore, using a “preferred” learning style (as opposed to an optimal one) can actually be detrimental to learning. Kirschner et al. put it this way in a 2013 paper on common education myths:
“The individually preferred way of learning is often a bad predictor of the way people learn most effectively; what people prefer is often not what is best for them.”
And this makes sense. To paraphrase an example from the above article, you may prefer pizza, but kale is objectively better for you.
In the same way, you may enjoy learning by watching videos but actually perform better on tests when you study by using something like the Feynman technique (we’ll get to how to figure out the way you learn best in a moment).
Even looking at my own experience, I’ve found I learn best using the learning style best suited to the material. I would never expect to learn geography only by reading about it, or cooking just by watching videos of Jamie Oliver. I might enjoy watching videos more, but thinking that it helps me learn better is to confuse enjoyment with effectiveness.
An Alternative View: Learning Techniques
“…a learning style that might be desirable in one situation might be undesirable in another situation due to the multifaceted nature of complex skills” – “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education”
So we’ve debunked the idea of learning styles. Now what? Should we give up on the theory of learning entirely?
I don’t think so. Instead, I propose that instead of thinking about learning styles, it’s much more useful to consider different learning techniques.
While “learning styles” sounds like something that you either have or don’t , learning techniques are much more like a box of tools that you can draw from (and combine) to fit the particular learning challenge.
The number of learning techniques is probably infinite, but here are a few common ones that I find helpful:
Common to pretty much every class you’ll every take, I find reading really helpful for learning anything that requires a rigid, step-by-step procedure.
The written word also allows compression of large amounts of knowledge into a very portable, digestible format, so you tend to get more “bang for your buck” when reading a book vs. watching a video.
If I need to memorize anything, spaced repetition is my go-to. Thomas has a whole video that explains the technique in depth, but I find it super helpful for language learning, geography, and math equations.
Writing about a topic is a great way to find the holes in your knowledge, and it’s especially helpful if you’ll be required to write an essay about it for your class’s final exam.
The Feynman technique is one version of this, in which you take a blank piece of paper and try to explain the topic in as simple language as possible. This quickly reveals what material you need to study further.
This technique is what I think makes instructional videos so popular. It’s just so much easier for Jacques Pepin to show you how to make the perfect French omelet than it is for a book to explain it.
Observing also includes things like watching “explainer” videos or video tutorial content. And obviously, any kind of demonstration that a professor does in a class or lab.
I think observing can be a very powerful technique if you use it correctly, but I also find it’s one of the easiest areas to confuse enjoyment with true understanding.
For instance, if watching Khan Academy videos helps you to understand math concepts, that’s great. But make sure to combine that watching with a healthy amount of math practice, since being able to do math is what ultimately matters for class.
All this means is having a conversation with other people about the topic. I’ve never been a fan of studying in groups, but I imagine the reason some people find it helpful is that discussing the material out loud forces you to put it into your own words.
The danger in this technique (and the reason I avoid it) is that it’s easy to get off topic. I suggest limiting your discussions to one-on-one if you can, or using a professor’s office hours as a chance to discuss the material with someone who (probably) won’t get off topic.
When we read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my 9th grade English class, my teacher had the inspired idea to have us listen to an audiobook of the play in class as we silently read along.
This was hugely helpful to “decoding” the play’s archaic language, and it’s a technique I’ve since used extensively when studying other subjects such as Spanish. This is a prime example of where combining learning techniques leads to the best results.
I say “practicing” instead of the popular “doing,” because it emphasizes the need to be deliberate. You aren’t just mindlessly repeating the act over and over – you’re alertly practicing it and correcting yourself as needed.
The subject in which I have the most experience using this technique is music. No amount of mental tricks or creative techniques is going to get you around the time you need to spend carefully and methodically rehearsing scales, fingerings, phrasing, and exercises.
If you’re learning any subject where the ultimate outcome is some kind of product (anything from an essay to an equation to a conversation in another language), make sure to allow time for deliberate practice.
And of course, as I already alluded to, you can and should combine the above techniques. I’m learning Spanish, for instance, through a combination of live speaking practice, spaced repetition, reading, writing practice, and videos.
If I followed the standard advice that I should only learn using my natural “style,” I’d probably be okay at reading Spanish but useless at pretty much everything else.
But how do you know which techniques are best for which subjects? The key is experimentation…
How to Experiment with Learning
“We are all born into this world, and at some point we will die and that will be that. In the meantime, let’s enjoy our minds and the wonderful and ridiculous things we can do with them. I don’t know about you, but I’m here to have fun.”
– Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament
In college, you’re expected to do a lot more learning on your own. Your classes may require you to do certain readings, submit homework assignments, and obviously to attend the lectures, but beyond that it’s pretty much up to you how you learn the material.
Don’t view this as a burden; embrace it as an opportunity to experiment with learning techniques.
Now, many of you are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of “experimenting” with anything that can affect your grade, so let me be clear.
I’m not saying you should blindly use one technique to study for a test, pick another random one for the next, and then compare which to see got you a higher grade. That’s not just reckless – it’s also poor experimental design.
Instead, I suggest you experiment with learning techniques in a context where the stakes are low. A great way to do this is to either make your own quizzes for a subject you’re trying to learn or just find practice material online.
Study the material using one method, test yourself, and then wait a couple days to allow the memory to fade somewhat. Then use a different method with a different quiz and compare results.
It’s hard to do this in a completely unbiased way, since you’re likely to do better the second time around due to prior exposure to the material, but it’s good enough for our purposes. Plus, you’ll be learning regardless, so it’s basically a win-win.
I’d also suggest that you both embrace and challenge your intuition. If you assume that studying material one way will be the best for you, then by all means try that first. But don’t be afraid to try a completely opposite method later. You may be surprised to find that the other method works better.
For instance, the intuitive way for most people to memorize something is just to repeat it over and over to themselves, which is called memorizing by rote. Even though a method like spaced repetition is far more effective, it’s not something people would naturally try (or even know about). But once they test it and see how superior it is, they can never go back.
Have an open mind and test, test, test!
As you can now see, how we learn is more wonderfully complicated than a simple “learning styles” model can ever encompass.
Furthermore, the most effective learning comes from using the techniques that work best for the material in question (and for you!). With the proper combination of techniques under your belt (and plenty of experimentation), you’ll be equipped to learn just about anything!
I hope this article has gotten you excited about the topic of learning, or at the very least inspired you to try out some new learning techniques.
To learn more about the subject of learning in general, I recommend the following resources:
- How to Learn More Outside of Class Than You Ever Could Inside It
- Holistic Learning by Scott Young
- “The Art and Science of Learning Anything Faster” by Tim Ferriss
What learning techniques work best for you? Have a learning story you’d like to share? Join the conversation in the comments section below, or start a discussion in the College Info Geek community.