Learning Styles May be a Neuromyth; but, Variety is the Spice of Life
January 06, 2017
“[There is] ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.” At least that is the conclusion of Harold Pashler, Professor of Psychology and a faculty member of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California, San Diego, Mark McDaniel, Professor of Psychology at Washington University, Doug Rohrer, Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, and Robert A. Bjork, a Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Over the years, personal preferences about how information is presented to individuals has evolved into a theory about learning styles. Pashler and his colleagues explain, “The term ‘learning styles’ refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them.” The question, however, is whether having a preference about how information is presented is proof that we each have unique learning styles. An increasing number of academics are concluding the concept of learning styles is bogus. Jenny Anderson (@) bluntly writes, “It’s all bunk.” Daniel Willingham (@), a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, told Anderson, “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. It’s one of those things people think ‘they’ have figured out, that science [supposedly] knows it to be true.”
Variety is the Spice of Life
Whether or not you accept the assertion that no credible evidence exists to support the learning styles theory, ignoring the fact that individuals express a preference for how information is presented to them cannot and should not be dismissed as unimportant. I think William Cowper was correct when, in 1785, he penned, “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.” The fourteenth century scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), expressed the same sentiment from a different perspective. He wrote, “Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure.” If nothing else, the variety of ways people have dreamed up to help people learn provide spice to the educational field. After reading a previous article I wrote about learning styles, I was contacted by Alice Bowers, from , who directed me to feature she launched detailing various learning techniques now available.
Bowers uses the term “learning styles” but, recognizing that could be a loaded term, I prefer to think of them as learning techniques. Bowers discusses these techniques under seven different categories: Visual/Spatial Learning; Aural/Auditory-Musical Learning; Verbal/Linguistic Learning; Physical/Kinaesthetic Learning; Logical/Mathematical Learning; Social/Interpersonal Learning; and Solitary/Intrapersonal Learning. She also discusses differences between digital and physical learning tools. Below are some of the highlights of her feature.
“If you are a visual learner,” Bowers writes, “you should try to incorporate lots of imagery into your studying to aid in your visualisation of the subject. Here are some methods and tools that can help to boost your visual learning”:
- Mind maps: A mind map is a great way to visualise your ideas. Try to use lots of colours and use pictures and images in place of words where possible.
- Highlighters: Even visual learners will need to make notes at some point, but using colour-coded pens to highlight and categorise different types of information can help it to be better absorbed.
- Systems diagrams: These can help you to visualise the different aspects of a system and how they link together. Using pictures and lots of colour further helps with the learning process.
- Visual storytelling: Putting written information into a visual story format, such as a comic book-style layout, can help visual learners to memorise information better.
- Videos: Watching a tutorial video is much more effective for a visual learner than reading pages and pages of text.
- Peg system: This is a form of word association, in which the ‘peg’ is a mental hook on which to hang information. Numbers are often used as pegs, and visual learners are adept at pegging information for quick and easy recall.
“If you are an aural learner,” she writes, “you should try to incorporate sound, music, rhythm, and rhyme into your studies in order to better absorb information. Here are some techniques that can help you”:
- Use recordings: Record your lectures where possible, and play them back when studying to help you take in the information. You could also use sound recording of background sounds; for example if you’re learning to tune a car engine, use a recording of an engine running to help you visualise the procedure.
- Create jingles: Mnemonics and acrostics can aid your learning, and forming them into a jingle that rhymes can help you to remember the information better.
- Anchoring: The anchoring technique helps you to associate music with certain things; therefore when you hear that music it helps you to recall information. Anchor your emotions and memories to music in order to remember them easily.
- Group study: Working with a study group can benefit aural learners as you’ll pick up information from talking and discussing things with your peers. Things such as word-association games and debates can help with your absorption of the study materials.
- Text to speech: Take notes in lectures and transfer them to your laptop, then use a text to speech programme to hear them aurally.
“Linguistic learners regularly make the effort to seek out the meaning of new words and phrases, and use them in conversation and written work. Here are some verbal learning techniques that may help you”:
- Mnemonics: Using acronym mnemonics can help you to make up another word or a memorable sequence to help you remember a piece of information.
- Speaking and writing: Verbal learners should try to find ways to incorporate more speaking and writing into their studies. For example, you could talk yourself through a procedure before and during performing an activity.
- Assertions: Try to use rhythm and rhyme in your assertions to make things memorable, and read important pieces of information aloud or set them to familiar songs or jingles to aid the absorption of the information.
- Scripting: Write your study notes down in a script format; you could even record them to play back to yourself too.
- Read aloud: Reading content aloud helps verbal learners to retain things more easily. A top tip is to read things in a dramatic and animated way rather than using a monotone voice, this will help you to recall things better.
- Role plays: Work with a study group or friends to role-play the course material. Verbal exchanges such as phone calls, sales call, radio shows, or negotiations can help you to remember and recall information more easily.
“Physical learners prefer to jump in and get their hands dirty, as opposed to reading about something or looking at diagrams. If this is your learning style, here are some techniques that may help you”:
- Focus on sensations: If you learn by being physical try to use a visualisation process that focuses on sensations. Visualise the action, for example baking a cake, and think about the sensations associated with it – the vibrations of the electric mixer as you prepare the cake mix, and the smell of the cake as it bakes in the oven.
- Physical objects: Use these as much as possible in your learning process. Touch an object physically as you learn and explore what it can do. Flashcards of information can also help you to recall things as you’re touching and manipulating them.
- Write and draw: These are also physical activities, so use writing and drawing to create mind maps and diagrams that will help you to be active, hands-on, and aid your recall of information.
- Role playing: You can either do it alone or with others; role playing is a physical activity that enables you to practice skills, behaviours, and processes in order to better absorb information.
- Breathing and relaxation: Using breathing and relaxation techniques can help you to stay focused, calm, and centred whilst you are studying.
“People who learn in a logical and mathematical way tend to have a scientific approach to thinking, often supporting their points with statistics and logical examples. They also like to do brainteasers and play strategic games like chess and backgammon. If you are a logical learner, these tips may help you”:
- Lists: Take notes in lectures and then spend time afterwards extracting the key points and forming them into lists to aid your absorption and recall of information.
- Infer meaning: Rather than just learning information by rote, try to infer meaning from content instead. Learning and understanding more detail about things helps you identify links and patterns between things.
- Illogical association: Your brain will fight against it at first, but illogical and irrational associations are remembered better than logical ones!
- Scripting: Highlight any logical behaviours and thoughts in your notes and scripts; this will allow you to identify systems and procedures so you can easily change things when you need to.
- Breathe and relax: Don’t forget that your physical body is as much a part of the system as any hardware or software that you may be using in your studies, so be sure to regularly relax and focus on your breathing when you need to re-centre your thinking.
- Systems thinking: This helps you to understand the links between the individual parts of a system, which helps you to understand and appreciate the bigger picture. Systems diagrams can help you to gain a better understanding of the way in which the components of a system work together to form a whole process.
“Those with an interpersonal learning style tend to have strong social skills and like to interact and work with others on projects. They work through problems by bouncing ideas off others and listening to their input. If you are a social learner you may benefit from these study tips”:
- Group work: Social learners should aim to work with others as much as possible. Try forming a study group with peers of a similar level and bounce ideas off each other, offering instant and constructive feedback to one another.
- Role play: Working with others, role play can help you to visualise things better, which aids your recall of information. Obviously it’s best to do this with other social learners to avoid making people feel uncomfortable or awkward.
- Assertions: Reciting assertions and working on your visualisations is a good way of absorbing information, and reciting them with others will help to strengthen them further.
- Mind maps: These are great to work on as a group; one person is nominated as the writer/drawer, while the rest of the group contribute and share ideas. Afterwards, the mind map can be photocopied for you to add things to on your own and refer back to.
- Share and listen: Share your own views and reviews with others, and listen to their views and how they solve problems. This may give you more ideas on how to solve your own issues and study more effectively.
“Intrapersonal learners typically enjoy spending time alone; they are independent thinkers that have a deep understanding of their own needs and behaviours. If you prefer studying alone in places where it is quiet and uncrowded, here are some tips that might help you”:
- Set personal goals: Set objectives for yourself and make plans to help you achieve them. It helps to understand your own reasons for your goals, and to visualise what things will be like once you’ve achieved them.
- Create personal interest in topics: In other words, study what you’re interested in and you’ll have better success at maintaining your motivation and achieving your goals.
- Keep a journal: Intrapersonal learners can benefit from keeping a log of their thoughts and feelings; this can help to outline any challenges you are facing and work on ideas for overcoming them. Write down things that have worked well, and things that have not worked so well, and any thoughts that arise as you are studying. You can then come back to this or use your notes to start a discussion with others.
- Associate your feelings: When you are visualising something it can help to think about the feelings that you associate with the situation or scenario. You’ll likely want to do most of your visualising in private, but it can also help to talk to others on occasion too.
- Role play: You don’t necessarily need others to role play with! You can visualise your peers and colleagues with you in order to practice a procedure or process alone. One advantage of role playing alone is that you can control the behaviour of whomever you have visualised!
My suggestion is to not lock yourself into believing you have a single learning style that lends itself to a small set of learning techniques. All of the techniques described above have value depending on the subject at hand and how you decide to use them in your educational journey. You probably noticed that Bowers placed some techniques under more than one learning style. I personally believe everyone should acquaint themselves with logical/mathematical learning techniques. They promote critical thinking which is applicable in most of life’s situations. That’s why I believe favoring one approach over another may not be in your best interests. When I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live — we placed no restrictions on the techniques that should be used. We are interested in getting students excited about learning and variety may just be the cure for dull instruction. Bowers has more to say and I recommend you read her entire article.
 Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, December 2008.
 Jenny Anderson, “You may think you learn better in a certain way. You actually don’t,” Quartz, 9 December 2015.
 Alice Bowers, “,” Essay Writing Service UK, 2 December 2016.