The idea underpinning learning styles is that individuals all have a particular approach to or style of learning. The theory is that learning will therefore be more effective or more efficient if students are taught using the specific style or approach that has been identified as their learning style. For example, students categorised as having a ‘listening’ learning style, could be taught more through storytelling and discussion and less through traditional written exercises.
1. The number of high-quality studies of learning styles are extremely low. As a result no impact is displayed. Schools implementing approaches with very limited evidence should carefully consider how they would monitor impact and mitigate against the risk of negative effects.
2. Students are very unlikely to have a single learning style, so restricting students to activities matched to their reported preferences may damage their progress. This is especially true for younger students in primary schools whose preferences and approaches to learning are still very flexible.
3. Labelling students as particular kinds of learners is likely to undermine their belief that they can succeed through effort and to provide an excuse for failure.
4. It appears to be more promising to focus on other aspects of motivation and self-regulation to engage students in learning activities.
5. Teachers should aim to support students to take responsibility for success in their learning and develop their own successful strategies and approaches.
The lack of studies identified that tested learning styles approaches rigorously, as found through a systematic search, mean that there is not enough security to communicate a month’s progress figure.
There is very limited wider evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of students. Evidence also suggests that it is unhelpful to assign students to groups or categories based on a supposed learning style. It is particularly important not to label primary age students, or for them to be led to believe that any lack of success is due to their learning styles.
Individual learning preferences do change in different situations and over time, and there is some evidence that cognitive preference and task type may be connected (for example, visualisation is particularly valuable for some areas of mathematics). However, studies where teaching activities are targeted towards particular students based on an identified learning ‘style’ have not convincingly shown any major benefit, particularly for low achieving students. Impacts recorded are generally low or negative.
Despite the popularity of learning styles in Australian education, research in the Australian context has found little support for the approach, and has instead highlighted the potential harm in categorising students, suggesting, for example, that this type of labelling is particularly problematic for Indigenous students.
A 2010 review article conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that the concept of learning styles is commonly used by universities, schools and education departments in Australia. Its author noted that the concept of learning styles has initial appeal, but cautioned that its use was not supported by evidence and may promote damaging stereotypes.
Studies where teaching activities are targeted towards particular students based on an identified learning ‘style’ have not indicated an impact on student achievement and therefore, grouping students on the basis of learning styles is unlikely to be a successful strategy for closing the disadvantage achievement gap.
Adaptive teaching approaches are unlikely to be valuable if teachers set lower expectations for particular students. It is important not to label younger students or to attribute poor performance to their ‘learning style’ as this may negatively impact student motivation and self-efficacy. This poses a particular risk for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are, on average, more likely to have lower prior achievement.
There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify the learning needs of young people. Instead, teachers hoping to target students effectively might consider other teaching and learning practices including:
- Understanding students’ differences, including their different levels of prior knowledge and barriers to learning.
- Ensuring responsive teaching – including modelling, explanations, and scaffolding – and high-quality feedback for all students.
- Providing targeted academic support where learning needs are identified.
- Supporting students to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning.
- When grouping students, carefully monitoring the impact on student progress, motivation, and behaviour.
As a classroom-based approach, activities are typically delivered by teachers or TAs.
The costs are estimated as very low, usually involving preparation of a greater range and variety of teaching and learning materials. Some of the available tests of learning styles require purchase and it is important to be aware of the lack of validity and reliability of these tests given the lack of evidence for the existence of learning styles noted above.
When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.
The lack of identified studies that tested learning styles approaches rigorously mean that the security of the evidence around Learning Styles is rated as extremely low. For topics with extremely low evidence, a month’s progress figure is not displayed. No studies were identified that met the pre-specified inclusion criteria.