317. Beware the Myth

One of the most persistent neuromyths is the belief that students learn more when instruction is tailored to their specific learning style. In this episode, Shaylene Nancekivell and Xin Sun join us to discuss their research on possible negative consequences of the learning styles myth.

Shaylene is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. Xin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Shaylene and Xin are co-authors of a study entitled “Beware the myth: learning styles affect parents’, children’s, and teachers’ thinking about children’s academic potential,” published in the NPJ Science of Learning journal this fall.

Show Notes


John: One of the most persistent neuromyths is the belief that students learn more when instruction is tailored to their specific learning style. In this episode, we examine possible negative consequences of the learning styles myth.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Shaylene Nancekivell and Xin Sun. Shaylene is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. Xin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Shaylene and Xin are co-authors of a study entitled “Beware the myth: learning styles affect parents’, children’s, and teachers’ thinking about children’s academic potential,” published in the NPJ Science of Learning journal this fall. Welcome Shaylene and Xin.

Shaylene: Thanks for having us.

Xin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are. Shaylene, are you drinking tea?

Shaylene: I am drinking a latte actually [LAUGHTER], the Chestnut Praline Latte from Starbucks, I needed coffee. When I do drink tea, it’s usually chai tea.

Rebecca: Alright, sounds good. You’re recovering here [LAUGHTER]. How about you Xin?

Xin: Coffee is my go to.

Rebecca: It’s a very popular flavor of tea on this podcast…

John: It is.

Rebecca: …for sure [LAUGHTER]

Xin: If it’s tea, it’s bubble tea for me [LAUGHTER].

John: I have a Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: And I’m back to some blue sapphire tea. I went to the tea store this weekend and I’ve stocked up, so we’ll have some variety soon, John.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to discuss your paper that examined the effect of identifying students’ learning styles on perceptions of children’s academic potential. Before we discuss this, though, we should probably just remind everyone about the myth of learning styles. It’s something which has been remarkably persistent, but what does research tell us about the relationship between identified learning styles and how people actually learn?

Shaylene: Yeah, so I’ll field this question. I think the first thing that people should realize is that the learning style myth is really hard to get a handle on Coffield and their colleagues identified about 81 different versions of the myth that kind of float around both academic and non-academic spaces. So when people hear the term learning styles, I think the first thing we should all point out is that everyone sort of means a different thing. That could be true in everyday conversations, that could be true like school to school. And so yeah, what learning styles are is actually really hard to pin down. The element that’s most common to most learning style myths is something called the meshing hypothesis. So this idea that if we figure out the right modality that people can learn in and we match instruction, somehow, to this magical modality, that people will learn better. And this is the thing that’s like, most common across all myths. And the modalities that people talk the most about are things like visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. So learning with your hands, your eyes, or your ears, that’s kind of the version that’s most common. We don’t really know where exactly the learning style myth came from. There was like old books by Dunn and colleagues, talking about how to set up ideal learning environments for children that mentioned this term learning styles, but this whole matching to like visual auditory, kinesthetic version of the myth where researchers aren’t too sure how everyone came to some sort of agreement that this was the version of learning styles that should stick around and we don’t really know where it came from. Regardless, researchers have tried to disprove it. So they’ve done studies where they have given people learning style surveys or tried to identify people’s learning style in some way, and then matched instruction to it and they don’t find any effects on learning. Overall, the best thing to do is to match the instructional style to the kind of content you’re teaching. And that’s kind of the best thing to do instruction wise, and then in terms of studying for students, the best thing to do is try to take in information in as many different ways as possible, and just deploy best practices in studying, so things like spaced practice, and paraphrasing, putting things into your own words, those kinds of things that we know are really good for studying.

Rebecca: So although we have no idea where it came from, why oh why is it so persistent?

Shaylene: I have two other research papers where I’ve tried to dive into that. The one that’s most relevant is actually a paper that Xin also co-authored with me that I did during my postdoc at Michigan. And what we did was we walked participants through an actual research study. We said, like, “Okay, this is the data they’re going to collect, these are their hypotheses, do you agree if they find data against or for the hypotheses that it’s testing the learning styles, and we found that participants agreed it was a good test of learning styles. And then we told them at the end of the study that it turns out, this is a real study or version of it, at least, that researchers have done, and they found no effects on learning outcomes. And there were a proportion of people that were very willing to revise their beliefs upon thinking through this exercise, they’re really kind of open to like, “Okay. I told you that this would prove or disprove it, I’m on board, maybe I’m wrong.” But there was also a pretty big proportion of participants that even after walking through this exercising and agreeing that that was a test of learning styles, did not want to revise their beliefs. And what we found is It seems to be entrenched in their identity somehow. They provide these really personal anecdotes of ways learning styles had helped them or family members. So that actually is kind of what led us to this paper we ended up doing, which is that there seems to be some sort of link between our academic self-construal and our learning styles. And that kind of creates almost backlash against wanting to revise their beliefs, because then you’re not just revising a belief about learning styles, you have to revise a whole host of beliefs about maybe why a family member succeeded or failed at school, or why you yourself succeeded or failed at school. And that’s a little bit harder to do for any person, and not just research participants.

John: We should probably mention an earlier podcast that we had with Kristin Betts and Michelle Miller, who had conducted an international survey of neuromyths. And my recollection was that the learning styles myth was the most widely held myth of any of the neuromyths that they were examining. So it is out there. I know a lot of our faculty on our campus still teach it, despite all the evidence, and despite some of us encouraging them to please stop that. But it’s something that just won’t go away, and most students come into college believing it. So in your study, though, you’re looking at some of the possible harmful consequences of a belief in learning styles. Could you provide an overview of your study?

Xin: So in our paper, we conducted three studies. And the first study, we included a child sample and a parents sample. So the children they were around 6 to 12 years old, so elementary school age. And in the second and third study, for each study, we included a parent sample and a teacher sample. So for all of these five adult samples, they’re all around 100 participants each. So what we did was for study one and for across the studies, we first sort of describe the participants to hypothesize students. So the first one, we wouldl describe them as all the students learns the best with their hands. And the second or the other students would be described as all the student learners the best with your eyes. So basically corresponding to a hands-on learner and a visual learner. And in study one, we asked participants to rate how smart do you think these students are? So one on one, are they very smart, like just smart, a little bit smart, or not so smart. And so parents and children, they went through the same kind of protocol. And what we found in study one is, on average, both parents and children, they believe that the visual learner is smarter than the hands-on learner in terms of their smartness rating. And in study two, instead of asking participants to rate individual learners, we ask them to compare directly, so which learner do you think is smarter? And a lot more participants believe that the visual learner described as like learning best with their eyes, is smarter than the other hands-on learner. This is true across the teacher and the parents sample. And then in study three we wanted to ask “Well, so what do you mean by being smarter? So does that mean that this visual learner would do better in some of the school subjects?” So we then, in study three, asked parents and teachers to predict grades of these two described hands-on and visual learner across like some common school subjects, including math, science, language, social studies, as well as some of the, what we call non-core subjects, like arts and music. So what we found is, on average, both the parent sample and the teacher sample rated grades as being higher in the visual learner compared to hands-on learner in many of the subjects including math, language arts, social studies, and they also rated the hands-on learner as having higher grades in some of the other subjects, like arts and music. This is generally what we found. Shay, do you want to add on to it?

Shaylene: Yeah, sure. And I think kind of the big take home is like a lot of the work that’s tried to argue against learning styles has made like a wasted resources argument, which I think is completely valid. We should be spending instructional time, especially in teachers college pre-service classrooms like teaching teachers best practices, same thing with our students and study practices. But I don’t think that argument has persuaded people. So one big motivation for us to do this paper was I think the learning settlement actually can create more damage than just a wasted time or wasted training session for teachers. When we provide these labels, and we label children this way, it’s providing unintended messages likely to the parents, or if you apply these labels, like teacher to teacher, or even label a child in a classroom of their peers, people are hearing other things than just this kid is a hands-on or a visual learner. They’re making judgments about maybe what that child is going to be good at or not good at, or when or how they’re going to succeed in the classroom. And that, to me, is highly problematic. We want to meet kids where they actually are, not where they are based on construall that’s resultant of a myth.

John: The efficiency argument never troubled me that much in that when instructors believe in the learning styles myth, they tend to use multimodal instruction, which is helpful for everyone. My concern with it had more been the impact on students’ perceptions of themselves in a somewhat different way. I’ve often had students say, “Well, I can’t learn by reading this textbook, because I’m a visual learner” …and encouraging them to use their eyes to read didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Normally, I referred them to some of the studies on learning styles. But it’s something that students really deeply believe… that they can only learn in certain ways, which may deter them from trying new ways of learning and that’s what’s always concerned me. The effect on perceptions is something I hadn’t really thought about until I saw your paper. I’m really pleased to see this avenue of research because it provides a really strong argument against the persistence of the learning styles myth. Ultimately, studies like this might help persuade people to stop doing this.

Rebecca: So given your results, what are some of the implications we need to think about in terms of pre-service teachers, but also, the students that we have in our college classrooms who may have had this kind of impact on them throughout their education so far.

Xin: I feel Shay kind of touched on that point, which is, on the one hand, that what people generally feel that the learning style myth, the consequences are that it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of energy. But it’s fine to just have it there because I wouldn’t do any other harm apart from that, but in reality from our study, you can really see that it not only like we add these things, it’s just an add on, but also it creates, I would say, biased, thinking about students, like what they can do, what they in the future might become, is sort of ingrained, for example, in parents’ or teachers’ thoughts. So I think this is not a good sign to like students’ development. And I feel you’rr right, John, that there are studies also, like qualitative evidence showing that students like from elementary school, some of the students would say, “I don’t want to do this kind of math, for example, because you showed me in a certain way, like, I’m a visual learner, you should show me in another way or something.” So I feel like the learning style method, if you believe in it, it might set limits for yourself. So I cannot do such and such because I am a certain person. I think this is also an important future direction for us to study, which is what’s you think about yourself in terms of learning self myth and what you can do.

John: What you’re showing is that it’s not just the students’ self-perception, it’s also their teachers and the parents who may be affected by this. And all those things, I think, could have some impact on student major choice, the decision to go to college. Is that one of the things you’re thinking about following up in terms of this study?

Shaylene: Yeah, I think a really important future direction for this work and something that actively writing grants… so fund us… to look [LAUGHTER] more into, are things like how does labeling someone with a certain learning style affect program recommendations, how I even write recommendation letters? When I get those boxes, and it’s described the students strengths and weaknesses, am I actually describing their real strengths and weaknesses or am I describing strengths and weaknesses based on essentially what the… I use this word a little bit loosely… but stereotype almost and, I think we’re also very interested in a group about how these might intersect with other aspects of people’s identity. So what does it look like if you label someone identifying as a woman or a man with a certain learning style or different racial identities? So, yeah, again, how does that intersect with, because we know there’s a whole host of academic beliefs that can come to the surface, when you find out that someone maybe is a young woman. They might get a double hit, if they’re perceived to be a young woman and a hands-on learner… they’re never destined to be good at math, for example. So we’re also just interested in exploring more about identity because identity, of course, is intersectional, and has more than just this learning style element. We’ve kind of studied it to the best of our ability in a vacuum in this paper, but it doesn’t actually exist in a vacuum in the real world. And the other thing we are looking into right now, planning some projects, looking at more implicit beliefs. So to kind of put another step forward to kind of prove that this is akin to like a stereotype. So there’s certain research paradigms you can do to look at more implicit beliefs, and to look at more people snap judgments, as opposed to like these more reflexive explicit beliefs that we have in our survey. So yeah, those are all promising and I think, really important, future directions to flesh out in the future.

Rebecca: I know that one thing that I was thinking about, while I was reading your paper, is how guidance counselors and others who help students make choices about what they might do, college, or even before that, if they want to do a technical program or something, and how that might inform the decisions or the advice they give. I know that as a student, I excelled in places like math and science, but I also deeply loved art. And if I showed a preference towards wanting to do that more kinesthetic work in art, I was discouraged. It’s like “Oh, you’re book smart.” So it’s almost like those same stereotypes that you’re talking about, or kind of found, I think, sometimes, perhaps lead to odd advice, or don’t necessarily encourage a student to pursue something that might be a worthwhile endeavor for them, because it’s deemed not worthwhile.

Shaylene: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s the fear. And, I think, at least anecdotally, when I talk to people, I get stories very similar to yours. In our one paper, in Cognitive Science, we coded them, but we read like, at least a few dozen online participants. People didn’t have to write that much. It was just like, “explain your thinking.” People wrote us essays about learning styles and how they had affected their life or their child’s life, like completely spontaneously and these are like online workers that were paid a whole dollar for our survey. So I think, at least anecdotally, we kind of have evidence to suggest this is likely happening. And so it will be a very important feature direction. But I also think, as academics, we need to be careful, because I think educators are overburdened, and they’re doing their best. And so I think a real take home for this is that we shouldn’t criticize them for holding beliefs that literally 90% of the population have, and that we should do more to support our educators. And yeah, I don’t want the takeaway here to be [LAUGHTER], teachers are doing bad or evil work or anything like that. They are so overburdened, they have no time for professional development. And so it makes sense that they would hold beliefs similar to their peers that aren’t educators, but we can do more to give them evidence-based ways to support their students. So not just telling them don’t do this, but giving them a replacement. And that’s something I try to do a lot too when I talk to my students about learning styles is, I think, sometimes, especially when you’re busy, it’s easy to say, “Oh, just don’t study in that way.” But like, what are they replacing it with? Because it’s filling a hole that they have. So making sure that we give them something else to put in that spot. So they’re gonna be career counselors, that’s like part of their job, how can they do that in an evidence-based way? So something else I’m very interested in, just in general in the neuromyth literature is, what are the different ways we can communicate neuromyths effectively? That’s something I would love to do more research on as well. Because the message “Don’t do this,” I don’t think is the right one.

Rebecca: No, we know this… just interacting with small children…[LAUGHTER] …you tell them not to do something, that’s the exact thing they want to do. We all do that [LAUGHTER].

Shaylene: Yeah, like try this instead.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] Redirection.

Shaylene: I have a list of places that learning styles permeate the educational system. It permeates teacher education, it permeates university learning centers is a big one. So like where post secondary students go to get study advice. It’s like a very common part of post-secondary learning centers. It obviously permeates the classroom. It has global endorsements, so you see it across Latin America, Greece, obviously Canada, the United States, large parts of Europe. And then the other place you see it is, unfortunately, in the academic literature, almost like the education adjacent literature. So it might be someone that isn’t an education scholar, but maybe they’ve published a paper on teaching in their field, because they’ve developed a new teaching technique or something for teaching medical students. And you see learning styles permeate those papers. And we do cite a lot of those, which makes it extra hard for an educator, because if you do a literature search on learning styles, and you don’t know the subtle differences between these fields and these journals, you will find tons of papers supporting learning styles… academic papers, that’s the other place it permeates and you see these field- specific beliefs. And Xin pulled out a great quote for our intro that was like talking about these people thought they discovered this unique learning style of medical students that was a combination of two different learning styles or something, I think. It permeates this education-adjacent academic literature as well.

Xin: Yeah, yesterday, I saw this learning styles quiz on Canada’s government website. They have a job bank, where they help people to do career planning. And then there’s a bunch of career quizzes saying, like “discover your learning styles.” So they officially fill this as a tool for people to find their job, or at least which industry they would ideally work in. So that’s shocking to me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Step one do no harm [LAUGHTER].

John: Now, in terms of follow up studies, are there any large data sets out there that would have identified learning styles in it to facilitate a study of the impact on major choice or decisions to go to college and so forth?

Shaylene: Not to my knowledge, a lot of the learning style literature kind of falls into a few broad buckets. So the first bucket is this really wonderful rich neuromyth literature that has been around for a long time. And there learning styles is usually just one or two survey items in a broader survey to assess educational literacy like educational sciences literacy, or neuro literacy or that kind of thing. So you’ll see learning myths listed with things like right and left brain learners, and drinking a lot of water can increase your brain size. So just general, like neuro literacy things. And then those are actually are pretty big datasets. And there is some stuff where they’ve correlated that with academic success, or teachers’ prior knowledge of neuroscience and then like willingness to endorse the myths, but it’s more of like a catch all type surveys. And then there is this other literature I’ve talked about that kind of takes learning styles to be real, and looks at how it’s related to major selection and that kind of thing. So they’ve kind of studied this, but kind of the wrong lens. Why do people pick chemistry? …because they have this perception of themselves. So it’s related, but it’s not quite right. And then other literature is actually really small. And that’s kind of where I’d place our paper is kind of diving deeper into the learning style myth itself. And there’s other great researchers doing this work. Newton just had a paper come out this year looking at the endorsement of learning style myths in higher ed. He’s published a bunch of papers, they’re really great. Couple papers by our research group, looking at learning style myth in particular, but that literature is really small, there’s not a lot of people doing that work.

John: I was just thinking, if, there was information on it in the Baccalaureate and Beyond or one of the NCES data sets, for example, that would be a nice way to examine the effect of student perceptions of their learning style on decisions to go to college or majors and so on.

Shaylene: Maybe we should look. It’d be worth looking.

John: I’ve worked with those data sets a lot, but I never specifically looked for that variable, but I might this afternoon. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, it would be nice to be able to examine that.

Shaylene: Yeah. For sure, I mean, even at the institutional level, it would be worth doing something like we have the undergraduate research pools that at least would be a bigger sample then that’s even in our paper included questions like on mass screening or something. But it’s kind of hard, because unless you get into one of these nationally representative surveys, it’s hard, still looking at people that chose a psychology course, or whatever, so your sample is still going to be a little skewed. And the government for the most part thinks they’re real. So I don’t know what they would include if they included it.

John: So, obviously it would be best if we could just get rid of the myth, but we still have whole generations of people who grew up with that. What might be some ways of breaking people from this belief? I think you had a prior study that looked at strategies for trying to encourage students to move away from this myth. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Shaylene: So I guess the prior paper that we did suggests that, for some people, providing them with evidence and walking them through the evidence and helping them think about it is enough, and they will revise their beliefs upon being presented with that evidence. And that kind of fits with other work I’ve done earlier, suggesting there’s a ton of variability in how people think about and construe learning styles. So I think getting the evidence out there and really helping people think about the evidence critically and what it means. Like, “What was the study? What was the hypotheses? How did they test it? Was it a good test? This is what they found…” That went pretty far. Our sample was all online workers that did that study, and they had a variety of educational backgrounds, too. They weren’t all familiar with research or that kind of thing. But there was a huge proportion of people that this belief is like really entrenched in how they perceive the world, how they perceive their academic journey or other people’s academic journey. And so one thing that we actually are really interested in is how maybe stories of personal anecdotes that we could provide people that maybe help them think through the potential harm of the myth. So, “Oh, well, it might have benefited someone in this case, but it could actually create harm in this case, because maybe this person really imagined themselves as being an electrician or being a plumber and those are really great jobs. But now they feel like that’s something they won’t be good at because they’re not the kind of learner, they haven’t been told that they learn in the right way, they should go to more math or science university instead, because that’s what they’ve been pushed to do.” That would be really not great for that person’s life outcomes, because that’s maybe not their interest or passion. So just helping people maybe think through how these stereotypes might unfold and the potential consequences of them, I think, is maybe a promising future direction. Because we know based on that prior work that just giving people this is what the literature has found isn’t going to revise everyone’s beliefs. So maybe like challenging their anecdotes with a thinking exercise almost might be an interesting direction to go.

John: And your study could be a nice basis for that type of thing, because it does describe harm that can take place as a result of a belief in this, which was not something that people generally considered before.

Shaylene: Yeah, it was hidden, I think, but maybe if it becomes more visible, people would be more willing to revise their beliefs. And you see it in like dialogue. I see it even when I get reviews back from my papers on this subject, reviewers will say like, “Well, it’s a preference. And we know that matching instruction to students preferences can benefit them because they feel more motivated. So is it really harmful?” I’ve had reviewers push back and write that kind of thing. And so this is maybe a thing we can point to, that even a preference, it might seem benign, but applying that kind of label is not benign, it’s not neutral.

John: It might be hard to get past reviewer 2. [LAUGHTER]

Shaylene: Yeah, I mean, the consequence of this permeating academia is that permeates our reviewers sometimes. But, I will say we had a really great experience at NPJ. So this is not about [LAUGHTER] that journal. Just to be clear, we had a lovely experience there. The reviewers were great. They definitely made the paper better. Everything good to say about that journal.

Rebecca: Well, we’ll always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Shaylene: What’s next for us is fleshing out the stereotypes more. So we’ve already talked about some directions, you guys brought some up and we did, looking at how it might affect actual daily practices. So how someone writes a recommendation letter or the kinds of programs children get recommended to. The kinds of careers people think others would excel at. I have learning style surveys where most people that believe in the myth think that learning styles can predict career outcomes, but diving deeper into like exactly what that means, because it was just like a one item on our broader survey. And then also looking at things like we talked about earlier, like how learning styles intersect with people’s identities, because most people aren’t just black shadows.And that’s what we did in our study, we just like provided little black silhouettes. So I think kind of moving our findings into like, a little bit more of an ecologically valid realm, I think, is the next step.

Xin: And building on that is also what we’ve discussed. We could also switch gear from the career guidance to parent or teachers’ perspective on what the recommendations they have on learners, but also towards learners themselves. What do they think? “Oh, I have these kinds of learning styles. What does that mean to me? Am I gonna go for certain jobs, but not the others?” Yeah, if we ask children these kind of questions on “What is your learning style? And, what’s going on, going off of it?” That will be very interesting.

Shaylene: Xin and I have another paper looking at beliefs about… it’s Xin’s work, really, I helped… She has a wonderful paper looking at people’s beliefs about language and language acquisition and policy endorsement. And I actually think that’s also another promising future direction. So I wonder if the degree to which we believe in learning styles, how that affects beliefs in streaming of children from a really young age, which we know isn’t always beneficial, especially if you stream children too young into more academic streams and less academic streams? That does happen in some countries. And so that’s, although less common in Canada, very common in other places. Xin, you talked about like the Chinese education system has different…

Xin: Oh, that’s from high school, though…

Shaylene: Yeah. So even that, the degree to which you might endorse, it’s more extreme streaming of students like different schools even. So that’s probably another important direction is, how does this affect things you would vote for or endorse as a citizen?

Rebecca: Thank you for your really important work and helping us all think about the kind of harm that some of these beliefs can actually cause.

John: Yeah, students face enough barriers that having learning styles serve as a barrier to their learning is something that could be pretty easily avoided. Great work and I’m looking forward to seeing more of your future work on this and other topics.

Shaylene: Great, thank you so much for having us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Xin: Thank you.

John: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.