The Myths That Persist About How We Learn

17:04 minutes

An elementary science class in the 1950s. Credit: Iowa Digital Library/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Do you consider yourself a visual learner? When you see something, do you commit it to memory? Or do you perhaps learn faster by hearing new information? The idea of “learning styles” has been around since the 1950s, and the theory is still widely believed by educators and the public, according to a recent study in Frontiers in Psychology. But there’s not much evidence that indicates the theory is true.

“If it were true, this should be really easy to find in the laboratory,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “And we don’t see it.”

[Researchers say teaching emotional literacy is key to better behavior.]

In this segment, Willingham discusses what we know about learning and the brain. Laura McGrath of the University of Denver and Kelly Macdonald of the University of Houston also join to talk about their study on misconceptions about learning and the brain, and other commonly believed “neuromyths.”

[To master test material, give your brain a break.]

Segment Guests

Daniel Willingham

Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lauren McGrath

Lauren McGrath is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado.

Kelly Macdonald

Kelly Macdonald is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Do you consider yourself a visual learner? If you see something, do you commit it to memory? Or perhaps you’re more of a word person. You have to hear it in language, right? Or you could be an activity type. You like building things with your hands. That’s how you learn.

Three different types of learning. And the idea of learning styles has been around a long time since the 1950s. And it’s still widely believed among educators and laypeople alike, according to a recent study by my next guest. But how much evidence is there to support the idea that you’re going to learn something faster if I teach it to you in your style?

Teachers, we want to hear from you. Were you taught about learning styles and teacher training? Do you use them? Does it work our number is 844-724-8255– 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us at @scifri.

Let me introduce my guest in an auditory format only, of course. Daniel Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Lauren McGrath, assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Denver in Colorado. She joins us from Colorado Public Radio. Welcome.


IRA FLATOW: Kelly MacDonald, a doctoral candidate in clinical neuropsychology at the University of Houston. She joins us by Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: I hope drying out OK there.

KELLY MACDONALD: We’re doing all right.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great to hear. Dr. Willingham, let me go with you first. Is there evidence to support this idea of learning styles?

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: So the short answer is no. But I think an important thing to get clear for your listeners first, Ira, is the difference between learning styles and learning abilities, because that’s a frequent source of confusion.

Styles and abilities are not the same thing. The idea that people have different sorts of abilities, that some people are good in math, for example, and other people are good with words, that’s not controversial at all. And frequently when people think, oh, I’m a visual learner or I’m a spatial learner or something like that, what they’re really thinking about is ability.

And again, ability is uncontroversial. So if we’re going to introduce a new idea like styles, it really ought to mean something different than ability. So what style is supposed to mean is ability is that you’re able to do something and style is how you do it.

So an athletic analogy is useful here, I think. You could have two basketball players of equal ability, but they have different style on the court. One is a very conservative player and the other is a big risk taker.

So that’s a really important distinction to make because a lot of times when people think about learning styles, what they’re really thinking about is ability. When people have looked for evidence for learning styles, that’s what we don’t find any evidence for. Differences in abilities, plenty of evidence.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. McGrath, you and Dr. MacDonald just completed a survey of educators and the public on this topic. How pervasive is this idea of learning styles?

LAUREN MCGRATH: Yeah, this was one of the most common myths that we actually turned up. And what we saw was really high rates of endorsement of this particular myth. So 93% of the general public were saying that they believed in learning styles, 76% of educators, and 78% of people that said they had taken many neuroscience courses at the college or university level. So a really pervasive myth. In fact, it was the most pervasive myth of the ones we asked about.

IRA FLATOW: But yet Dr. Willingham, you write in a paper that while the idea is out there, there is really not rigorous evidence to support that there are different styles that work.

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: That’s exactly right. And this is not a difficult proposition to test. You just initially start with 100 people, for example. And to keep things simple, suppose it’s auditory versus visual learning. Try and find 50 auditory learners, 50 visual learners, and then give everybody one or another experience. Say they’re going to either watch a slide show that depicts a story or they are going to listen to a comparable version of the story.

And then crucially, some of the people get the story in their preferred modality, and other people hear it or see it in their non-preferred modality. And then later we check for comprehension of the story or memory of the story.

So a very obvious prediction here. If I get the story in my preferred modality, I should remember it better later. And that has been tested. And we don’t see any evidence that that’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s interesting. Dr. MacDonald, you were a teacher and you went through teacher training. What was your experience? Were learning styles talked about much, told you, hey, this is the way to go?

KELLY MACDONALD: Absolutely, so it was a word-of-mouth way that I learned about the learning styles theory and was definitely encouraged to assess my students at the beginning of the year to determine their preferred modality for learning. And I think this is one reason why we need to be so sensitive when we’re trying to dispel this particular myth. We really want to make sure that we’re not emphasizing that all students be treated the same, necessarily.

We do recognize that assessing students on a number of variables can be helpful for learning outcomes. So things like assessing prior knowledge on a subject or assessing students’ interests levels or levels of prior mastery, those are associated with learning outcomes. But when we assess for learning styles and try to tailor to those styles, just like Daniel was saying, there’s no real evidence to support that that will help students.

IRA FLATOW: So what do you say– let me ask all three of you. So what do you say to teachers to do now, if they’ve been taught in school as student teachers to use the styles, what should they be looking for instead of these supposed different styles in the kids?

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: Well, I’ll jump in. I would say a couple of things. One is learning styles is a theory about how learning works. It’s a theory about the mind. It’s not a theory of instruction. So if you’ve been teaching with learning styles in mind and now we’re saying learning styles isn’t right, that doesn’t mean that the instruction you’ve been practicing is bad instruction.

It could be good but for other reasons. For example, if you’re trying to vary what you do in the classroom to respect different styles. Well, variation and instruction is probably a good thing, anyway. So that’s the first thing to keep in mind.

But the second thing to keep in mind, moving forward, is I think instead of trying to vary instruction to particular student styles, think about the different modalities as useful for different types of content. So some of the content you’re teaching really ought to be presented visually, some of it ought to be more auditory. So instead of trying to match to student style, match to the content.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask my other guests, do you agree with that?

KELLY MACDONALD: Absolutely, I think it really depends on your objectives for the lesson. And some types of content really lend themselves to visual presentation. One example is if you’re teaching maps, that’s got to be visual. If you’re teaching music, those are types of things that needs to be auditory. But if your goal is to get a multifaceted exposure to certain content, it can be helpful to weave in all different types of modalities.

IRA FLATOW: Kelly, one of the more interesting– a lot of interesting stuff that you’ve talked about, but the other interesting myth you covered in your study was something called the Mozart effect. Tell us about that.

KELLY MACDONALD: Absolutely, so this is one of the most pervasive myths that we found in our study. We found that about 60% of the public still believe this myth, which is the idea that listening to classical music can increase children’s reasoning abilities. Educators believe that myth– 55% of our sample.

So this particular myth took hold in the early 1990s. There was a study that was actually conducted in college students using a very specific measure of just spatial ability, which was used as a proxy for intelligence. They found a result here, so listening to Mozart increased their spatial ability.

And so this finding was picked up by popular media. It was generalized to very young children. And people began to tout the importance of exposing newborns to classical music to enhance their intelligence. This finding– we really haven’t been able to replicate it. And so the whole body of literature suggests that this really isn’t something that’s based in science.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. McGrath, another myth about learning and the brain that people still believe, you say, is that dyslexia is a visual problem– it’s not a visual problem, you’re saying.

LAUREN MCGRATH: Yeah, so that is a really commonly misunderstood part of dyslexia. It comes from the early 1920s and 1930s where that was a theory about how dyslexia worked. But in reality, so let me just explain dyslexia it’s a problem with accurate and fluent word recognition and recognizing those words, being able to decode those words. It’s not about seeing things backwards or reverse, which is what a lot of people think.

Instead, what we’ve been able to show over the past many decades is that it’s a problem with a linguistic skill. So the ability to break up words into their component parts, and then map those to letters is the underlying deficit that we see. So it’s really a language-based problem, not a visual problem.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting, let’s go to the phones. Our number, 844-724-8255. Lots of language people checking in. Let’s go to Syracuse. Darren, welcome to Science Friday.

DARREN: Hi, good to talk with you, Ira. I just had a comment to make. I have a master’s in special education and am currently working on a second master’s in special education. And as a person with a learning disability myself, personally, and some of the special education students that I’ve been working with, it’s been my experience that the different learning styles and approaches that you take with a student, some of them learn hands on, whereas others can take it in through reading, and others can take it in yet through visual perspective, such as videos or movies, and apply that directly. So I would have to respectfully disagree that it’s mythology.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. McGrath?

LAUREN MCGRATH: So I think this goes back to what Dr. Willingham was pointing out. I think what you’re highlighting is that kids have differences in their abilities. And we absolutely would concur with that.

The problem with the learning styles theory is that it would have to predict something above and beyond those abilities. So that’s where the evidence really falls apart.

IRA FLATOW: Again, explain that further, because I think it’s confusing. If you have an ability, why not teach to that ability?

LAUREN MCGRATH: Yeah, no, I think– go ahead, Dr. Willingham.

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: The reason not to teach the ability, sometimes you can do that. But very frequently, content is not really interchangeable. So for example, if you’re trying to teach someone geometry, there’s a lot of that that’s really going to be visual and it’s going to benefit from a visual presentation. And it’s just not going to work very well to say, well, describe the triangle to me because really I’m not so good with visual presentations. Just as if you’re a verbal person and you struggle with math, you can’t ask someone to exchange one for the other.

IRA FLATOW: I guess, and if you’re trying to build something in a classroom and someone doesn’t have the touchy-feely ability, there’s nothing you can do about helping them to build it on their own.


IRA FLATOW: They’re a visual learner or auditory learner. So let me just remind everybody that this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

Are there a lot of myths, other myths, still out there, Dr. Willingham– or I’ll ask all three of you– that need to be debunked?

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: I am concerned about myths. But when I think about education, I’m a little bit less concerned about some of these myths because I don’t know how much they’re influencing teaching practice. And I’m a little more concerned about missed opportunities. So I think there are things that we know about learning, about how learning takes place, about how children can best study, strategies they can use when they’re asked to read on their own, that are research-based.

And there’s quite good evidence that these really help kids and are effective. And not all teachers are aware of them. And that’s something that’s coming up everyday in the classroom. So that’s what I would like to see us focus on.

IRA FLATOW: One last question for you all. We have more and more technology. The kids are looking at screens. They’re in the classroom looking at screens, in their daily lives all day long. We have a lot more visual, tactile stimulation around us. Is that changing the dynamic of how kids are learning, or not learning?

KELLY MACDONALD: Well, the growing use of technology isn’t my area of expertise per se. But I think what it definitely is allowing for is for repeated practice, which we know is really good for learning. And it presents the material in novel ways to kids. And especially in our area, in the reading and cognitive literatures, we really see the importance of this repeated practice for different reading interventions for struggling readers.

And so it’s possible that this could be done through the use of technology. So I think that’s one role that it could play. And Lauren can maybe speak to that a little more.


LAUREN MCGRATH: Yes, so I do think in our dyslexia world, we see that extra practice with reading and decoding in the technology space can add above-and-beyond instruction. But I want to be clear, it doesn’t take the place of instruction.

So we often see, particularly for struggling readers, they need really explicit instruction. And this particular skill, we were talking about phonological awareness or phonics. So technology isn’t going to take that space, but it can provide more interesting novel practice.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Willingham, do you think your research about the whole idea of how people learn is going to filter now down back into the teaching schools?

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: I think so. I mean, I definitely see progress being made. There are more and more people who are working on this problem. In particular, I think a lot of researchers are comfortable in the laboratory. They’re less comfortable talking with teachers. And so they figure that this is not work that they’ve been eager to do up to this point. But I think there’s an increasing number of people like me who are eager to let teachers know about advances at the forefront of science that can help students.

IRA FLATOW: And I’m sure teachers– I’m just assuming that being a teacher that teachers would love to be updated on the most current thinking, wouldn’t they?

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: Teachers are learners. I mean, yeah, they absolutely love this stuff, for sure. This is their life.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you all– yes, go ahead, please.

LAUREN MCGRATH: Oh sorry, I was just going to make a point, too, that teachers love learning about neuroscience, too. And one of the impetuses for doing this study was we want teachers to be able to be good, critical thinkers and have the skills they need and the information they need to debunk some of these brain-based claims that we’re seeing filter into education more and more.

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating. Because we have a great focus on education, and actually coming up a little bit later after the break, we’re going to talk lots more about our Science Friday Educator Collaborative.

So I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today– Kelly MacDonald, doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, University of Houston, Lauren McGrath, assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Denver in Colorado, and Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology, University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.


LAUREN MCGRATH: Thanks so much.


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