There’s a rather persistent myth the permeates all types of learning and is particularly persistent in schools and even universities. The myth goes something like this: Humans exhibit a preferred learning style and if learning is going to be efficient, teaching needs to match this style. The most common manifestation of this idea is commonly referred to as VAK, denoting the three main learning styles; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. If, for example, I were to be a visual learner, I would learn best when taught using images, pictures and similar forms of media. On the other hand, an auditory learner would require a vocal or written delivery and a kinaesthetic learner would learn best through physical movement.

First thing to note is that there is absolutely no empirical support for this notion. However, to understand why the myth might be so prevalent we first need to look at why it might have come about in the first place. When we learn something new, this new information is encoded into long-term memory to be accessed at a later time (although this is highly simplistic explanation and involves different ‘types’ of memory). The human cognitive architecture does include different modalities and it’s believed different types of information are treated in different ways, so visual information and auditory data are handled by different systems. Additionally, tasks such as learning to ride a bike involve bodily responses, such as knowing how to peddle, stay upright and steer simultaneously. Understanding this might lead to the conclusion that some people prefer one modality over another and that matching teaching to this modality is more effective.

People, therefore, do learn in different ways, yet some learning is more geared towards one type of learning than another. However, learning happens best when we use all modalities as much as possible, rather than relying on our favourite. Take, for example, a theory of learning known as dual coding. Dual coding theory suggests that presenting information in both written and pictorial form creates multiple cognitive pathways which consequently, result in more accurate recall. Teaching only to one modality, on the other hand, is not only less efficient, it may even be harmful. Psychologists and neuroscientists have known this for some time, with the first critical study published as far back 2005. Despite this, however, we are still seeing schools adopting a learning styles approach in 2020 and even teacher training providers (including many top universities) promoting the idea.

The main problem with myths such as learning styles is that teachers and other educators might end up wasting precious time on lesson preparation needlessly. But these myths also tell us something important; that, generally, we don’t always know how best people learn, whether we’re talking about ourselves or others. This is just as true for adults learning a new skill as it is for students revising for upcoming exams. This isn’t to say that researchers haven’t been working on this problem for an awfully long time, in fact, we’ve learnt a great deal about the efficacy of different learning strategies over the past couple of decades or so. Despite what we know, people will still fall back on ineffective techniques such as rereading and highlighting and may even cling to the belief that they are a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner. We may well have preferred learning style, but these preferences don’t equate to the best methods and, instead, narrow the learning process and make learning less efficient.

The notion that many of us don’t know how to learn is an uncomfortable one, yet at the same time it’s incredibly liberating because it implies that our ability to learn new things (and learn them well) isn’t entirely related to how intelligent we are. Students, for example, who are more successful often employ a range of techniques and strategies that give them an advantage over those who use less effective ones. The trick, however, is being aware of what works and what doesn’t, or rather, which techniques have been found to work for most people most of the time.

In 2013 a group of researchers, including John Dunlosky, professor of psychology and director of experimental training at Kent State University in the United States, published a paper looking at the efficacy of range of common study techniques. The paper was eventually picked up by teachers, particularly those who were becoming interested in the role cognitive and educational psychology might play in the teaching practice. This was still a relatively small number of educators, confined mainly to the very active communities that inhabited social media. At the time I was teaching at a high school in the north of England and, while I made some attempts to share the finding with my colleagues, there was a reluctance to recognise the role of psychology in any aspect of learning beyond wellbeing.

The Dunlosky paper was, for me, a revelation, mainly because it confirmed some of my own views on how my students could learn more effectively. Rereading material, highlighting and underlining were found to be largely ineffective, while practice testing and elaborative interrogation (asking ‘why’ and ‘how’) were two of the more successful strategies. However, the list went further by including wider techniques that needed to be implemented via a near complete overhaul of teaching structure. The interrelated techniques of distributed practice and interleaving appeared the most successful. What they all had in common was that they took into consideration how the models of memory and cognitive development informed actual learning instead of relying on what could be best described as folk theories.

Fast-forward to 2020 and little has really changed. Studies since Dunlosky’s paper have found that students are still very much in the dark when it comes to understanding how they learn — and teachers aren’t much better. This is despite more recent evidence linking specific learning strategies to exam scores. Kayla Morehead, another Kent State University psychologist, found that teachers and lecturers endorsed both effective strategies (for example, practice testing) and so-called educational myths, including learning styles. Nevertheless, fuelling this greater understanding are teachers, not academics, even though this new breed of evidence hungry educator is still relatively tiny in comparison to the total number of teachers around the world.

Another problem that arises is that even when students know which strategies are most effective, they don’t necessarily use them. A study conduced by Rachael Blasiman discovered that students who said they planned to use certain strategies over the coming months rarely did. Even when they said they were going to self-test or use flashcards, in the end they reverted to the less effective strategies such as rereading and highlighting. Such learning strategies are passive, they do little to enhance the strength of the memory within the brains cognitive architecture, providing us with only the illusion of learning.

What are we then to take from these studies? The vast majority of this research has involved undergraduate students (often psychology undergraduates) so it might be difficult to claim that such results could be replicated using different groups. Additionally, understanding how younger learners approach their learning may well be more useful, as it’s likely that university students have inherited their study techniques from earlier educational experiences. To help correct this imbalance, researchers in the Netherlands investigated the study strategies used by 318 Dutch speaking secondary school students and, just as importantly, they looked at the strategies these young learners were using when studying alone beyond the influence of their teachers.

In this more recent study, Kim Dirkx and her colleagues took, like earlier studies, Dunlosky’s 2013 paper as the starting point of their investigation. However, rather than having students identify a pre-set list of strategies, Dirkx and her co-researchers didn’t put a limit on the number of strategies participants could say they used. They then categorised the strategies to see if they could be placed into one of the groups from the Dunlosky study and further divided them into those the students used as the primary method and those they used less regularly.

The most used strategies were rereading and summarising, for both the primary method and less regularly used. Very few students (0.3%) used highlighting as their primary method but over twenty-five percent did say they used it. Practice testing was only used as the primary method by just over 8 percent of students but this rose to slightly over 60 percent as a strategy used less often. Distributed and interleaved practice, on the other hand, was used by less the 1 percent of respondents as their primary strategy, while in the less often used category, just under 4 percent of students used distributed practice while only 0.3 percent used interleaving. This is most likely because few teachers use interleaving and distributed practice, perhaps because it takes time to see the results. In fact, both strategies might even appear to lead to less learning in the short-term, even though long-term gains are often high.

In addition, students reported methods that didn’t fit into these categories, including copying, thinking of real-life examples, cramming and completing practice problems. Apart from this last technique, where just over 7 percent said this was a primary method and nearly half said they used it less often, there were a relatively small number who chose these other strategies.

Suboptimal strategies

These studies indicate that students at all levels continue to use suboptimal study strategies. Why this might be the case may well be because students simply aren’t aware of the best way to study, or that there is a lack of formal induction into effective techniques. What also needs to be taken into account is that many teachers might also not be aware of the evidence supporting the efficacy of certain learning strategies. Alternatively, such techniques might form part of a revision strategy rather than a learning one. Practice testing, for example, may only be applied nearer to tests and exams when performance is about to be assessed, rather than throughout learning. As for techniques like distributed practice and interleaving, implementation of these strategies can be complex and require a degree of knowledge about how and why they are effective, so they may not even be open to consideration by many students.

There is no clear solutions to this problem, especially when students are engaged in private study without the supervision of a teacher. However, greater emphasis on study skills and the nurturing of adaptive study habits can help students to think about their own learning in terms of strategies that work best.

While you’re here:

My new book ‘Becoming Buoyant: Helping teachers and students cope with the day to day’ is now available.

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0367441624

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