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How Do You Learn Best? Whatever Your Answer Is, You May Be Wrong

The theory of "learning styles" is being debunked. Here's what's next.

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How do you learn best? Is it visually? By listening? Maybe reading?

Here’s some crazy news: Whatever you think the answer is, you might be wrong.

That’s because the entire idea of “learning styles” is likely wrong.

You’ve surely heard of learning styles. It’s a theory that took off in the ‘90s, which claimed that people can be grouped by the style in which they learn the best. It quickly found its way into classrooms. By 2014, more than 90% of teachers surveyed across multiple countries believed it was effective to tailor lessons to their students’ particular mode of learning.

But in the past decade or so, multiple studies have debunked this. Some even found that learning styles are counterproductive.

There is a better way to learn, though — and it can also help you be nimbler in an ever-changing world.

But before we get to that…

Why did learning styles take off?

There are a few different learning-styles theories, but the best-known one is VARK. It claims that students are either Visual, Aural, Reading/writing, or Kinesthetic (aka experiential) learners.

No one’s quite sure how this concept spread, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. Some people think it appealed because “teachers like to think that they can reach every student, even struggling students, just by tailoring their instruction to match each student’s preferred learning format,” said to Abby Knoll, who was a Ph.D. student at Central Michigan University when she was interviewed for the story.

But a drumbeat of studies either proves the theory wrong, or challenges the wisdom of teaching with any particular style in mind.

Among the studies…

  • In a 2015 paper in Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers found people who self-identified as either visual or auditory learners. They randomly assigned these people to learn something — some visually, some aurally — and then tested their comprehension. The results: Everyone performed about the same, regardless of whether they were taught and tested in their preferred learning style.

  • A similar experiment was run for a 2016 paper in the British Journal of Psychology. “As predicted,” the researchers wrote, “learning style was associated with subjective aspects of learning but not objective aspects of learning.”

  • In a 2018 study published in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, researchers followed 426 students in an anatomy class. The students took a VARK test to identify their styles of learning. A few studied according to their supposed learning style; most did not. This made no difference in whether they performed better in the class.

  • Despite all this, the belief in learning styles persist. In a 2019 paper published by the American Psychological Association, researchers surveyed 668 people about learning styles. More than 90% believed in them, and most believed that people inherit learning styles from their parents — even though there’s no evidence to support that.

So, what’s a better way to learn?

Educators say it’s simple: We learn in lots of ways, not just one.

“Everyone is able to think in words; everyone is able to think in mental images,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, in that Atlantic piece. “It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”

That advice is backed up by places like Yale University's Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. "A broader approach that invites students to reflect on their learning, rather than narrow their style down, has been shown to improve learning outcomes," it says.

This goes far beyond school, though. This is a mindset we should carry forward into our work and lives.

I learned that (aurally) from best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

I interviewed him years ago for Entrepreneur, and asked something I’ve always wondered. Gladwell’s work is distinctive; he’s built a career out of a particular style of storytelling, and it carries through his magazine, book, and podcast work. So I wanted to know: How does Malcolm Gladwell define what a Malcolm Gladwell project is?

His answer surprised me.

“It gets really dangerous — if you’re someone who’s doing something creative — to start to define what you do,” he told me. “Even if it’s a correct definition, it’s limiting to have that thing in your head. It starts to constrain you. So I rebel against that, and I’d like to pretend that the things I do can be different as anything under the sun. Now, it’s obviously not true. But it’s just really useful — more useful to think that way than to have a sense in my head of what I stand for.”

Instead, he says, he prefers to think of himself as operating with no rules. He pursues projects because they sound interesting, not because they fit some definition. Then he said something that I’ve repeated for years, and even quoted in my book:

“The most important thing is never to make a decision about yourself that limits your options,” he said. “Self-conceptions are powerfully limiting. In the act of defining yourself, you start to close off opportunities for change, and that strikes me as being a very foolish thing to do if you’re not 85 years old.”

This, I believe, is the key to our question above.

What’s a better way to learn, if there are no “learning styles”? The answer is, embrace learning in every way you can.

What’s the best way to grow? The answer is, embrace growth in every way you can.

This doesn’t mean we must or even should do everything. That’s not realistic. But it does mean being open to everything — to genuinely giving new ideas and tactics and strategies a chance, because they just might be the thing we were missing.

We must abandon the idea that we learn in one way, or produce in one way, or succeed in one way. The best “learning style” may simply be: all of the above

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Eugene Mymrin