A growing body of research has now more or less conclusively debunked the theory that people learn in specific modalities or styles. A frequently repeated notion in teacher training and professional development circles, learning styles theory claims that students brains are hard-wired toward a specific modality (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, auditory) and that teachers need to match instructional delivery to these specific learning styles.  I have even experienced a workshop where we took a “learning styles inventory” and then discussed how we should, as teachers, strive to reach each specific preference in the classroom.

This sounds good but the problem is that it’s just not true. A recent NPR story details recent findings as does this article from the Washington Post written by a cognitive psychologist. But importantly, this does NOT discount  the importance of being “multi-modal” in instructional strategies. It seems the baby may get thrown out with the bathwater here.

As a colleague in neuroscience recently told me, “there is evidence for a variety of ways to learn: text-based, pictoral, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. And people do have strengths in different areas. The problem with the idea of learning styles occurs when instruction is tailored in a particular way for particular students and other modes of instruction are neglected as a consequence. There IS evidence that learning is enhanced when multiple approaches are used — reading, drawing, listening, writing, moving, etc. This is likely due to a number of factors: re-engagement of attention, repetition of material, multiple cognitive connections to the information.”

The take-away here is that we must be careful with “naturalizing” complex cognitive functions (you see this same thing with so-called multiple intelligence theory which is also not supported in the evidence). People are not “visual” or “auditory” learners anymore than they may possess natural “spatial” intelligence over, say “musical” intelligence. But, another key take-away is that it IS important to be “multi-modal” in your instruction as often as possible. Not so that you can reach those “visual learners” but so that ALL learners get the benefits of learning in multiple forms and contexts (and this is strongly supported by the research).

So no, you are not hard-wired to learn in a specific way. But yes, you can and should learn in multiple modalities to aid retention and understanding.

Image from: http://ruleof6ix.fieldofscience.-com/2011/05/your-brain-fortress-against-infection.htm