• Question: VAK learning styles have become embedded in many teacher's planning and practice. What does the research actually tell us about them?

    Asked by lizlawrence to Michael, Paul, Kathrin, Joe, Iroise, Ian, Emma on 14 Apr 2015. This question was also asked by nicole67.
    • Photo: Michael Thomas

      Michael Thomas answered on 14 Apr 2015:


      Research at the moment is somewhat sceptical about whether teaching according to learning styles is effective. Learning styles feel intuitively sensible – as teachers, we feel that students exhibit different preferences for how material should be presented, and introspectively, we often feel that we ourselves like content present in particular ways (I like pictures!). The Visual Auditory Kinaesthetic framework seems to place this on a more solid analytical foundation, consistent with the separation of different sensory systems in the brain. More convincing still is that when people express preferences about their learning style (based on questionnaires), they seem to do so reasonably consistently.

      But the acid test here is whether students presented material consistent with their preferred learning style out-perform students who are given the material in a non-preferred format, in learning and understanding that material. Here, the evidence from properly carried out experiments suggests no such advantage. You can find a recent short article by Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler nicely summarising this work here: http://uweb.cas.usf.edu/~drohrer/pdfs/Rohrer&Pashler2012MedEd.pdf. If you’ve got a lot of time to spend reading, here’s a more systematic review of all the different learning style theories, the evidence supporting them, and their impact on pedagogy: http://sxills.nl/lerenlerennu/bronnen/Learning%20styles%20by%20Coffield%20e.a..pdf

      So learning styles may be something we invent about ourselves, which actually bear little correspondence to how our brains process information.

      However, I still quite like the idea of learning styles. Psychologists are pretty confident that there are individual differences between children in their abilities. Shouldn’t this feed through to teaching methods? For example, much of the thrust of recent work on the genetics of education suggests that societies should embrace genetic differences in children’s abilities, and tailor educational curricula to allow maximisation of children’s different genetic potential. This is one of the main conclusions of Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin’s recent book ‘G is for Genes’. If this approach is right, shouldn’t we be using different teaching methods to maximise different children’s potential?

      Perhaps what is lacking at the moment is our ability to work out how to translate observed differences in children’s abilities or expressed learning preferences into individualised teaching methods. Perhaps VAK was just too naive about how straightforward this translation would be. Rohrer and Pashler conclude: “there is presently no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles. Educators should instead focus on developing the most effective and coherent ways to present particular bodies of content, which often involve combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways”.

    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 27 Apr 2015:


      Today’s Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2015/apr/24/can-neuroscientists-dispel-the-myth-that-children-have-different-learning-styles-im-a-scientist-learning-zone-wellcome-trust?CMP=share_btn_tw) described VAK learning styles as “thoroughly debunked” although this is only in passing and they cite a recent book by Christian Jarret:

      http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118312716.html

      Amusingly the article is about I’m A Scientist… so including it here completes the self-referential circle

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