If your childhood school days were anything like mine, at some point, your teacher divided you and your fellow classmates into three types of learners: visual, audio, or kinesthetic. Since then, you’ve wrapped some fraction of your personality around the fact that a chart is the key to your heart, or that you’ll retain plot points better if you listen to an audiobook. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friends, that it might have all been a lie.
Researchers have found evidence to suggest that this model of prescribed learning styles, which is called VAK for short, might very well be a “neuromyth.” A 2004 study found that catering to a students’ VAK didn’t result in better learning outcomes, reports Scientific American. And more recently (in 2010), Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham, both cognitive psychologists, wrote an article—which is really more of a takedown, TBH—about why the categorization just doesn’t work.
“Students do have preferences about how they learn. Many students will report preferring to study visually and others through an auditory channel,” the article says. “However, when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference—learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not.” Until researchers find definitive proof that changing the format of a lesson actually leads to better learning outcomes, they argue that you can’t consider this a reliable format for understanding how you commit information to memory.
“The big issue is that when we classify students into these broad categories, we can’t differentiate material in a meaningful way for them.” —Olivia Peterkin, teacher at New York’s Millennium High School
On a more specific note, the psychologists point out that, although you may absorb some information better by listening to a podcast about it, that format might not be helpful to learn another subject matter. For instance, it would be super difficult to learn the pythagorean theorem just by listening to it. “[W]hen we classify students as one style or another, we often do them a disservice because it could be that they tend to learn some content visually and different content with written words,” says Olivia Peterkin, a biology and environmental science teacher at New York’s Millennium High School. “The big issue is that when we classify students into these broad categories, we can’t differentiate material in a meaningful way for them.”
“So here is the punch line: Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles,” says Drs. Willingham and Riener’s article. And even those of us who have traded our cubbies for cubicles could use that reminder. (You know, since we’re students of the world and everything.)
Now that you’re primed to learn something new, here’s how to fall asleep in two minutes and how to get rid of a tension headache in 10 seconds.