Can people really be “visual” or “verbal” learners?

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For several decades it has been widely accepted in the field of education that certain people learn better using specific teaching techniques—that some of us gain knowledge more efficiently through verbal training, while others are more visual learners, for example. Yet, according to a review of previous research into this subject published this month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the studies that have reinforced the idea of specific learning styles over the years lack the rigorous methodology to confirm these popular beliefs.

A team of prominent education psychologists, including lead author Harold Pashler, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, systematically analyzed previous research that has been cited as evidence for the existence of different learning styles, and found that flawed study design consistently undermined the results. “I was pretty surprised to see how few studies had used research designs that have the potential to validate learning styles practices,” Pashler says. To accurately test the notion that people have different learning styles, Pashler and colleagues argue that researchers would have to first test and categorize research subjects by learning style, and then randomly assign them to groups emphasizing one learning style or another. What’s more, in this review, the researchers found that the few studies that had been designed incorporating these elements yielded little evidence supporting the theory of learning tendencies.

Pashler says he understands the appeal of educators wanting to cater to particular learning styles, but that, unfortunately too often educational fads are embraced before the science has proven their merits. “It seems fairly plausible that teachers might gain a lot by using teaching methods that mesh with the learner’s preferences,” he says. “Undoubtedly that has some intuitive appeal.” And he says he understands that, for teachers, it can often be difficult to distinguish the evidence-based approaches. “There has also been a lot of energetic marketing of different tests, materials, and workshops related to learning styles.” Teachers cannot be blamed, he says, for assuming that any approach that is so widely advocated—in professional development workshops, for example—must surely have some real evidence base behind it. “Unfortunately this is not always the case.”

Of course, proponents of learning style-based educational approaches aren’t so quick to accept the results of this review. Robert Sternberg, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, and a psychologist who has conducted research into learning styles, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Pashler and colleagues didn’t conduct a comprehensive enough investigation of the existing literature, and as a result they “come across looking either biased about or largely ignorant of the field.”

To that criticism Pashler says that he and his colleagues “searched the literature for studies that used research designs potentially capable of validating the use of learning styles, and found just a few.” He also points out that it wasn’t his intention to include articles or editorials that highlight opinion. And of the research with potentially valuable study design, “the most convincing reported negative, not positive, results,” he adds. Pashler says he hopes critics of this latest research will highlight any studies he may have missed in the review, but that, in the meantime educators may want to consider the time and resources dedicated to employing these techniques. “Even if there were a pattern of statistically significant positive effects, which we aren’t seeing here, educators would still need to consider relative costs and benefits,” he says. “Testing students and altering instructional methods to mesh with students’ preferences is costly, and the same resources of time and money could instead be focused on many other methods for which there is convincing validation.”

As for where educators can go from here, Pashler suggests referring to resources like the recently launched U.S. Department of Education site, Doing What Works, where he says evidence-based approaches are vetted to help teachers “identify methods that do have a rigorous research backing.”

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