Episode 90: The Learning Styles Myth: An Interview with Daniel Willingham

Guess what? There’s no such thing as "learning style" (the theory that each of us has a preferred way to learn new ideas. There are many supposed kinds of learning styles, such as a visual learning style, an auditory style, kinesthetic, etc.). Don’t believe it? Neither did I at first. I was sure for a long time that I personally had a visual learning style. Now I’m not so sure anymore.
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Why Do We Still Believe in Learning Styles?

If there is no scientific support for learning styles then whey do we believe they must exist? We also discuss multiple intelligences. While there is support for this idea, many people are confused as to what Howard Gardner really says about his own theory. Let’s see if we can set the record straight about learning styles, abilities, and intelligences in this episode of The Psych Files.

Recommended Book

I have read Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School and I can tell you that it is excellent. Very readable and filled with the latest research on learning in school. If you’re a teacher or are interested in the field of cognitive Psychology, then this is a book to get (NOTE: as with all my Amazon links on this site, this is an affiliate link. Affiliate links help to support this site and I only link to books and products that I have read or used and know for sure you’ll find valuable).
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Resources for this Episode

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  • An article by Steven Stahl entitled, “Different Strokes for Different Folks?” appeared in American Educator. This is an excellent review of the difficulties researchers have had with the various measures of learning styles (clicking the link will automatically download the full article).
  • The role of confirmation bias in learning styles: you think you have a visual learning style, so you recall all the times you believe you learned something visually but you don’t recall the times you learned something auditorily, kinesthetically, etc.

    “It’s worth thinking about not matching the child’s supposed learning style to how they are supposed to learn, but rather think about the content and what is it about this content that I really want students to understand and what’s the best way to convey that.” – Dr. Willingham

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    Comments

    1. Since I talked with Michael a relevant and interesting study has just been published: The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles
      David J. M. Kraemer, Lauren M. Rosenberg, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill
      J. Neurosci. 2009;29 3792-3798.

      Subjects were given a verbalizer/visualizer questionnaire. They were also given several verbal and visual ability tests from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. The authors made a composite of these subtests to form a single visual ability scale and a single verbal ability scale. Based on previous work, they expected that these would correlate with the verbalizer/visualizer questionnaire. In other words, if I’m good with words, I know it, and I call myself a verbalizer, but if I’m good with spatial stuff I call myself a visualizer. They didn’t observe this expected correlation. BUT if you take a difference score of the verbal and the visual ability tests and correlate that with the score on the verbalizer/visualizer questionnaire you get a highly significant correlation—0.63. [Comment: taking a difference score is a bit odd –it’s not clear what verbal ability minus visual ability means. Taking the difference score might make sense if the two measures were opposite ends of a single dimension. Then taking the difference score would highlight any differences in ability. But in fact the verbal and visual ability measures are themselves correlated, +0.57.]

      The key behavioral task involved making a similarity judgment of figures. Each figure had three dimensions (e.g., “orange, circle, stripes”) and could be shown as a verbal description or as a figure. (i.e., you would actually see a striped orange circle). Subjects would see one such stimulus (the target), followed by two probes. The subject’s task was to say which of the two probes was more similar to the target. (The more similar probe always shared two of the three features with the target. Subejcts weren’t told this rule, but they received feedback and most achieved good rates of performance). The target could be presented either visually or verbally, and so could the probes.

      Here’s why the task was interesting. The task is easier for everyone when the target and probes are in the same format: that is, if both are visual or both are verbal. BUT when you see (for example) a verbal target, you don’t know whether the upcoming probes will be visual or verbal. If you’re a visual learner, it would be smart to convert the verbal description to a visual image, because you’re better with visual material.

      And the brain imaging data support the idea that people do just that. The more someone looked like a “verbalizer” on the questionnaire, the more likely they were to show increased activity in “verbal” parts of their brain (left Supramarginal gyrus) when they were presented with simple pictures. The more someone looked like a “visualizer” on the questionnaire, the more likely they were to show increased activity in “visual” parts of their brain (fusiform gyrus) when they were presented with words.

      The authors did a number of other analyses to rule out alternative explanations (e.g., that activation differences were due to better visual and verbal abilities in the visualizers and verablizers, respectively).

      COMMENT:
      This study is interesting because it is the first set of data showing a neural correlation with a stated style preference. This verbalizer/visualizer distinction seems a little less interesting because it is correlated with ability. It’s not controversial that some people are better with words and some with images/space. People know what their proclivity is. What’s new in this experiment is showing that, given the chance people will translate from the less- preferred to the more preferred representation.

      What was not emphasized in the paper was that subjects did not score any better on trials that matched their preferred modality than trials that did not. That is, you would expect that verbalizers would be faster and more accurate when doing the all-words trials, and visualizers would be faster and more accurate when doing the all-pictures trials. But they weren’t.

      The results of this experiment might be of some interest to cognitive neuroscientists, as it indicates that people may have enduring strategies that they use on different tasks, and that they can tell you something about these strategies. There is not much here for educators, however. This is another example of a learning style distinction that does not help predict when people will find a task more or less difficult.

    2. Dan,

      Thanks so much for this thorough review of this very new study.

      Michael

    3. This was a really interesting interview, Michael & Dan. Thanks very much.

      I’m wondering if it’s related to something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a year or two now. I listen to podcasts (including the Psych Files, of course) in the car while I drive to work and think I learn a lot from them – I certainly remember enough to talk about the issues they raise with colleagues and friends. I’ve suggested my wife listen to podcasts while going walking and she all but refuses saying that she finds it too distracting and either has difficulty negotiating the walking bit or simply can’t remember anything she’s listened to. Am I the only person who can listen and drive at the same time? I figure the driving part is such a learned skill that I have plenty of attention (while still attending to traffic, of course) to devote to listening. Every now and then when I have had to concentrate on driving I’ll rewind my podcast a bit because I know I’ve not been listening.

      I guess my main curiousity is whether there is any evidence that listening to podcasts while engaging in other activities is an effective way to learn – and figured you (both) would be the people to ask.

      Thanks again.
      D.

    4. Derek
      I don’t know if there is a significant literature re: listening to podcasts. There is a huge literature on the use of cell phones and driving. The results are pretty clear. . there is a cost, even when using hands free cell phones. The hypothesis is that the cost is incurred because people imagine themselves in the locale with the person, which uses some of the brain’s spatial “machinery” (and hence interferes with driving).
      Podcasts could be quite different, of course, because they are not interactive in the same way. A lot may depend on the content. There is a well-known story of the great psychologist, Alan Baddeley, driving down a highway listening to an American football game on the radio. (Baddeley is British.) he found himself imagining the action on the field and, as a consequence, his driving became noticeably worse. He hurriedly switched the radio to a music program.

    5. That’s an interesting study Dan about how when we talk on the phone we imagine ourselves being with the person we’re talking to and that this imagining takes up some brain resources.

      As to Derek’s question: you’re certainly not the only person who drives and listens to podcasts (and usually educational podcasts) at the same time. I do it almost every day. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I also watch/listen to video podcasts (like CNET’s “Loaded” video podcast for example). I mostly listen to them and only look down if there really is something I have to see – which isn’t that often. I feel I learn a lot from listening to podcasts in this way. But, like Dan, I don’t know of any published research in this area.

    6. Angelica says:

      Hey Michael,
      I’ve just discovered the psych files and I am enjoying it very much, including this latest episode on learning styles. I think you guys convinced me that there are no visual learners vs. auditory learners (or whatever…) But I fear your guest is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think the failure of the learning styles theory is that it is a very broad-brush attempt to categorize people. But I think learners and teachers accept it so readily because it is an imperfect theory that explains a truth that they come up against every day…different students responds to different pedagogical means in ways that are not necessarily correlated to some absolute aptitude scale.

      Your guest also rejects the possibility that aptitude in one area can compensate for aptitude in another area. I agree with that in the narrow sense — there is no way to teach maths musically or teach Spanish mathematically or teach art in a linguistic fashion. But a lot of the skills we value are composite skills requiring a large number of different aptitudes. The example that is uppermost on my mind is playing the guitar…I switched from a teacher that emphasized music theory foremost to a teacher that emphasized technique (“This is just like the regular G chord, but if you barre it and play it higher up the neck it sounds different and just plain looks cooler!”) I’ve noticed an uptick in my enjoyment and general progress.

    7. Angelica
      You may be right, of course. Technically, one never reject a broad construct like “learning styles.” It’s always possible that a correct learning styles theory is just around the corner. All we can do is evaluate the learning style theories that have been proposed. None of those meet minimal standards of evidence, and people have been proposing and testing theories in this vein for 50 years. That’s why I suggest we put our energy elsewhere. . .for example, into learning more about how to teach all kids more effectively, rather than focusing on the learning differences that may or may not exist.

      I don’t really understand your guitar example. It sounds to me like you are saying that there are different aspects to complex skills and that people may learn some more readily than others. . .or that teachers may know more compelling ways of teaching some than others. Is that right? A similar example: a student may find it easier to understand the fraction 1/2 when described in terms of area (1/2 of a pie) than when described in terms of units (6 eggs of a dozen). . . .

    8. I don’t really understand your guitar example. It sounds to me like you are saying that there are different aspects to complex skills and that people may learn some more readily than others
      Yep. That’s what I meant. My first guitar teacher is actually, of the two, much more famous and expensive. He must work better for other people! But the second was the one that worked for me.

      By the way, I found your work on learning styles very interesting and a good, thorough de-bunking of the widely-accepted learning styles theory. I also agree with you that if a theory has been thoroughly de-bunked, it should die. I am bookmarking this page because I will be emailing this to anyone I come across who talks about learning styles approvingly.

      But it’s also worth thinking about why the theory is so popular and educators are loathe to give it up. Different kids do respond (or at least appear to respond) to different treatments and it is very attractive to imagine a kind of key that will unlock the optimum way to teach each kid. There might be no key, as your research strongly suggests, but that doesn’t mean the differences don’t exist.

      Anyhow, I think what the most valuable thing teachers and students get from the learning styles construct is that it gives teachers and students a way to work past bottlenecks in learning without having the student conclude “I must just suck at this” and giving up altogether.

      Not that I think you need to be personally responsible for coming up with something in its stead, but I think teachers are going to be talking about learning styles theory until they find another construct that is at least equally useful :P

    9. I think the learning style construct does much more harm than good. There is much research on delivering instruction to students in terms of explicitness, examples, modeling, response opportunities, and feedback; however, when one looks to student characteristics as the source of learning difficulty, instruction often takes a back seat.

    10. Lacey Lugar says:

      I am a student at arc whos taking psycolocy as a prequequitit not as a class I would have chosen. So , my view on the subject may be a little uneducated however I personally agree with Proffessor Daniel Willinghams veiw on learning styles. I have three children so I understand hoe children learn best according to the subject at hand. Proffessor Willingham stated that a science teacher would actually need to demenstrat an experiment rather than describe it. That statment alone actually convinced that his theories were also my own beliefs when I began thinking about my own experiances. For example when potting training my children I had to actually show them and assist them in the process. Then while they grow and begin schooling if they only were able to adapt to learning one certain way all students would experiance difficulty because now teacher is always going to teach in the same manner.

    11. Scott: excellent points. There are a indeed a lot of good ideas regarding the use of examples, modeling, feedback, etc. to improve instruction, but what gets the most interest – learning styles. I guess learning styles is more interesting to talk about than the more perhaps less “sexy” ideas like modeling and feedback. Unfortunate.

    12. Lacey,

      You’re absolutely right – the example of how science teachers have to demonstrate ideas is one of the most convincing arguments Willingham makes. Science teachers have to make some of their learning goals into hands-on activities. It’s really the only way for students to really learn some aspects of science, no matter what their supposed “learning style” may or may not be (I never thought about the potty training example, but you certainly wouldn’t want to waste too much time explaining potty training – you just have to do it).

    13. Wait a second, what about convergent and divergent learning styles? As a software engineer I’ve seen colleagues lean clearly towards one or the other of these. The convergent type relies on incremental learning, building on what they have learned so far, very dependent on context. The divergent type works better with disjoint information, inferring context as they go, a kind of boffin. I’m not psychologist, but I can see these trends in people and it’s really interesting to me, particularly when they clash and we get a sort of cognitive dissonance happening in our group discussions.

    14. Lindsay
      convergent/divergent thinking is an old distinction, proposed in the early 1950′s I don’t know of any recent experimental work examining it. There were a few studies in the 60′s and 70′s, that weren’t that terrific.
      It’s important to bear in mind the difference between “styles” and “abilities.” The whole point of the styles distinction is that it’s independent of ability. I find it easiest to think of it this way: you’d always rather have more of an ability. But a style is just supposed to be your particular path to a goal. . .having more visual style or more auditory style wouldn’t be an advantage. If we don’t make that distinction clear, then we may as well talk about “mathematical style” or “musical style” when we really mean mathematical or musical ability.
      The convergent/divergent distinction was proposed by Guilford not as a style, but as part of his model of ability. The two types of thinking (as he proposed them, whichdiffers a bit from what you’ve written) don’t lead you to the same place. Convergent sounds like analytic problem solving and divergent sounds like creativity.
      Dan

    15. patricia smith says:

      every time i take one of those “personality inventories” or “brain abilities test” I end up being smack-dab in the middle of the hemispheres and almost dead-center of the “lobes’…for what it is worth, I seem to learn on all levels and actually enjoy using different ones for different fields (math needs some doodles for me to work them out; history i see in a mental time line that sort of spirals, remembering what to get for dinner gets a little mnemonic diddy…I am a jack of all trades!
      i fully agree with the idea that we learn “meaning” and we learn it through a variety of inlets…can I remind us that as babies and toddlers we learned everything (or so it seemed!) through our MOUTHS!? Haha! But really didn’t we look and listen and touch and taste and then do it all again until we somehow created a mental file on whatever it was we were investigating and file it away so we can add to it later. Are we as adults really so different as kids, ok, except the tasting part (maybe.)
      When I work with my 4 & 5 year old I use all the sensory methods because I want them to become familiar (read: meaning) with something to the point of mental filing for later use. We also use a variety of learning backgrounds–we do small group, large group, one on one, large muscle then fine motor then free play and then quiet reading…the idea is variety is the spice of learning!
      Just FYI, Mythbusters on TV pretty much busted the idea that we can multi-task. Their episode basically proved that we may attempt doing many ,many things at once but we really are doing A, then B then C and we may do it rapid fire, but we still have to do one and then the next, not many simultaneously!

      There is also an idea in the back of my mind that says maybe we get lazy in our learning and say I am a visual learner or auditory or whatever because we have found that we learn EASIER that way–in other words we don;t want to have to work too hard to get the learning done so we go with what is easiest? Either way, it comes down to teachers using many senses to make meaning. Plain and simple!

    16. Great comment Patricia. Like you, I have to write down math work in order to see how to work it out (although if it’s easy enough I can picture it in my head) and history is like a timeline in my head as well. Couldn’t argue with your last sentence either. Well put. – Michael

    17. Prof. Willingham,
      Thank you for your articles & podcasts. They are wonderful.
      I am a fairly new Nursing instructor – and am currently the black sheep of my department. My peers use powerpoint slides for lecture and expect the students to copy their slides. I use slides for pictures and give the students outlines of the material to support our class discussion. If a concept is really important, I tell stories from my years of nursing practice. These stories are what students say they remember – even years after graduation. I also make worksheets for them for difficult material (like how the heart works and what it does) and try to break difficult concepts down so that they (and I!) can understand them better. Once they have the basic concepts, I use case studies to present common patient scenarios.
      My boss says I’m “spoonfeeding” our students. She also says I don’t “make” them read the textbook. Honestly, Dan – a reading assignment may be >200 pages (few pictures, small type). I think the material is fascinating, but even I have trouble reading and taking notes on that much material. Many of my students work full time, have families, and don’t read well. I would like to do better – and have more “active” learners. I just don’t know where to start.
      Any advice would be appreciated! -Jean

    18. “Learning style is not significant in terms of results”.
      Considering the confirmation bias, we could consider that we prime our “believed learning style”. Therefore we are self-inducing an interest in the content by priming the form, the way we learn.

      Did anyone conduct a research on the motivational aspect of the learning style?

      From a cognitive perspective we might not have any benefits in considering the learning styles.

      On the other hand, as social animals, we may benefit from learning styles in an indirect way, a self inducted way. For example, H may believe that he is a visual learner then by studying in this particular fashion H may feel more confident and more motivated. H might cope with the fact that he is not good in math by thinking that the content does not fit the form (learning style) that enhance the best her understanding and memory process.

      By considering the Learning style hypotheses, we probably cognitively auto-limit our ability to grasp and understand information.

      How to fight children’s boredom and keep their cognitive potential at the maximum?
      Keep their “Thirst of knowledge” and have them being the most efficient in terms of mental ability (cognitive capacity) are the challenges of the educator.

    19. Roderic Rinehart says:

      I’m late to the conversation and wanted, mainly, to thank Dan and Michael for discussing an issue in education that so many people and departments of education have so wrong. I find it more than a bit curious and annoying that my school of education at Indiana University requires us to prove our ability to address each learning style in every lesson plan and our portfolio.

      I also find it disturbing that even grad classes there do not offer the kind of curriculum an institution of higher learning should – namely – one that presents all the information and has the students come to their own reasoned conclusions. My concerns and critiques are brushed off, as if the viewpoints I bring up are part of such a minority or fringe that they do not warrant class time.

    20. Hello Michael,

      I think it is a bit difficult to completely dismiss the concept of “learning styles”.

      The study that was mentioned in the comments is interesting, but as far as I can see, the idea that different ways to process information have their anatomical correlates in the brain is well established.

      Regarding the visualizer/verbalizer-discussion, there is extremely interesting work my Maria Kozhevnikov and others at the moment. Her Harvard homepage with all publications in pdf-format:

      http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/mkozhevnlab/?page_id=11

      In the last years she has, in my opinion, found convincing evidence that there are indeed three cognitive styles:

      One verbal and two visual (object imagery and spatial imagery). Object imagery is for static images, vividness, color and shape. Spatial imagery is for schematic viewings, maipulation and transformation of objects and movement. So visual ability is no “continuum”, not a single scale, but has two factors.

      Those two visual abilities correlate (fMRI) very good with the two visual streams (ventral and dorsal), see

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Streams_hypothesis.

      When testing a group of visual artists, a group of scientists, control groups and groups of gifted children, with several typical tasks (Mental Rotation Test; Paper Folding Test; VVIQ; MPI), the result of several studies combined was:

      - the visual artists performed much better at object imagery tasks
      - the scientists performed much better at spatial imagery tasks
      - the differences in “talent” for object and spatial imagery as already present at school children
      - children who prefer spatial solving strategies perform significantly better at math tests
      - there seems to be a trade-off between object and spatial imagery, probably due to limited ressources in central executive working memory (only 10 % of the tested performed in the top third in object and spatial imagery, and only about 5 % performed in the top third for verbal, object and spatial ability)
      - people who self-evaluate themselves higher on the object imagery questionnaire have indeed higher object imagery ability: They show more efficient object imagery processing in their ventral pathway under fMRI when presented with an object imagery task

      In my opinion, this is a strong evidence for “learning styles” in a limited sense:

      The majority of children and adults seem to prefer either object imagery or spatial imagery. This difference in strategy leads to differences in performance, for instance in math and visual arts. So it should, at least theoretically, be possible to identify certain learning styles (always being aware that there is no either/or, since some people are good at both visual styles and at verbal; there are shades of grey and no exclusion).

      For instance, it was shown that some object imagery-visualizers had problems understanding physics graphs because they were taking them literally. It was also shown that those people could better understand the connection between graph and the events described by the graph if they could simultaneously see the real wotrld events and their effects on the graph, because that way they could make a conncetion between both. If a teacher with pupils who have severe math problems and don’t seem to “understand” some of the more schematic, spatial tasks, he/she could test the kids with regard to their visual style and might perhaps give them a more fitting explanation of the concrete math task, matched with their cognitive style.

      The most recent study (where the trade-off between object imagery and spatial imagery was discovered) is from 2010, so if future studies make even more progress in that direction, it might well be possible to help children according to their preferred “learning style”.

      What makes this whole series of studies so convincing for me is the ambitious attempt to establish a clear theoretical framework (verbal-object imagery-spatial imagery) in the area of learning styles. Furthermore, it is the success of each study that tested that framework. The discovery of the trade-off (2010) is, in my view, a certain breakthrough, because it clarifies the connection between the two visual streams.

      Best wishes

      Simon

    21. The reason this meme is so prevalent in schools is not because it is correct, nor because it is touted by teacher ed. texts, but because of the management models of evaluating teaching ability. When a principal is charged with evaluating the prowess of the teachers in her school, and has to report those findings upward to her “managers”, the same silliness happens as when we are evaluating our students: we want to fall back on measurables. It’s a lot easier to carry a clipboard into a teacher evaluation and tick off “yes” or “no” to a question like, “Does the teacher address the students’ learning styles individually?” than to actually make complex judgements about a very fluid and complicated problem like evaluating “good teaching”. So it’s partly a question of efficiency. The other half of the equation comes from good intentions, I think: most teachers or educators feel a calling and a social responsibility to their profession. We’re often caring to a fault, and this is an example of the ‘fault’: our predisposition to believing that our job involves finding the “hidden learner” in every student blinds us to the lack of evidence for this particular incarnation of that impulse. A kind of Confirmation Bias, if you will. Sadly, the two halves of the equation often come together in unsavory ways: when the principal asks “Is the teacher hitting enough of the learning styles in his lessons?” the implied subtext is often, “Is the teacher caring enough toward his students?” This puts a lot of pressure for the meme to become accepted, or at least unquestioned, in teacher circles, at least when administration is present. I think this is the method of preservation of a lot of silly educational buzzwords, actually: they’re tied to teacher performance reviews. A lot of it is just lip service, as you suggested, but it still has an effect.

    22. Thank you for the podcast. The problems I see that arise from the misunderstanding of “learning style” is how it is used by the authors of elementary and middle school curriculums. In particular,in the Connected Math curriculum, a math curriculum my school district uses, which uses a wholistic approach, instead of a linear approach and is very confusing for the kids who may be strong linear thinkers, but feel stupid and don’t like math because of the way it is taught by the wholistically strong thinking teachers using a wholistic curriculum (they helped develop it). Even the members of the Board, teachers and principals at our school district keep referring to my child as one who has the learning problem because, they say, “he has a different learning style”,(when he actually is a very linear thinking individual). They just don’t get it. Can you offer any help?

    23. It’s really hard to overcome this idea because it seems so “right” that people have a learning style. The example I give people is that of physics experiments that’s kids often do in high school. You can really only learn by actually DOING these experiments. It doesn’t matter if you think you have an “auditory learning style”. Can you imagine listening to someone talk about an experiment? You can, but the best way to learn content like this is to DO.

      The best approach is to fit the teaching technique to the learning goal.

      I know – it’s a hard sell….

    24. One of the best books on education I’ve ever read. The chapter on learning styles is only one of many topics he delves into and illuminates.

      Dissapointed to say that even after reading the book, though, teaching is still as challenging as it has always been. :)

      Finally, I believe Michael’s comment above is spot on. In sports they call it the specificity principal, but I believe it is just as valid in education.

    Trackbacks

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