An overview of students’ preferred learning styles and if they work

July 9, 2018 Published by


The debate on teaching according to students’ preferred learning styles

Learning styles refer to the different ways that students may prefer to learn. But is the concept of teaching being more successful when tailored to a student’s preferred learning style a myth?


Firstly, what is the learning styles approach?

For teachers, there are various different ‘teaching styles’ that can be used according to different ways that students may learn the best. Different ‘learning styles’ are widely accepted to fall into four main categories – ‘Visual learners’, ‘Auditory learners’, ‘Reading/writing learners’ and ‘Kinaesthetic learners’. These are based on the VARK model of student learning, founded by educational theorist Neil Fleming.


Here is each learning style explained:


Visual Learners

Prefer the use of images, maps and graphics.

Auditory Learners

Best understand new content through listening and speaking in situations such as lectures and group discussions, use repetition as a study technique.

Reading and Writing Learners

Learn best through words. May present themselves as copious note takers or avid readers.

Kinesthetic Learners


Hands-on learners who best understand information through tactile representations (i.e. understanding how a clock works by putting one together).


Does teaching according to student learning styles work?


It is widely believed that teaching students by their preferred learning style increases their ability to learn and retain information. Problems occur however, when you think of how many different possible ways or combinations there are to describe someone’s preferred learning style (research has shown there are over 71!), and also whether someone is actually good at identifying what their optimum learning style is – while they might think they learn better visually, their performance could say otherwise. Recent research has also shown that students do not actually benefit from studying according to their supposed learning style. It was found that undergraduate students’ grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style, or in fact any learning style(s) they scored highly on.

Child Writing at Home

Psychologist Scott Lilienfield has also suggested that the learning styles approach may cause harm, as it “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses” and suggests that students should not avoid their shortcomings, but instead address them and compensate for them. However, the concept of learning better when taught by our preferred learning style remains popular. This may be because learning this way can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t and because children also do a lot of learning outside class, where they may see benefits from self-selecting their preferred learning style. As a parent, you would also understandably like to think that your child is receiving a tailored education and similarly, teachers also want to be sensitive to each child’s needs and so are motivated to adapt to and fulfil these. This is especially understandable when you consider that we often label those kids who fit into a traditional teaching approach (i.e. classroom and book-based teaching, pressured exams for reinforcement and review) as bright, and those who use less favoured learning styles might end up in lower sets.


What can be done instead to enhance our child’s learning?

We are of course not suggesting on giving up on tailoring teaching styles completely, as while there is little strong evidence for matching teaching style to preferred learning style, there is still scope for tailoring teaching style to improve learning.


For example:

  • Adapting teaching to a different understanding – evidence shows novices to a subject learn better from studying examples of it, whereas those children with more expertise learn better by solving the problems themselves
  • Combining different activities – research shows learning is improved (for almost everyone) by combining different activities, such as drawing alongside more passive study.
  • Specific study strategies – evidence shows specific study strategies help everyone regardless of their preferred learning style, including practising microscope work in science and using lecture notes.
  • Considering nature of the material – usually, the most effective way to learn is not based on our own individual preferences, but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – learning French grammar through pictures, or geometry only verbally would prove very difficult!.
  • Using multiple intelligences – research shows that each learning style uses different parts of the brain, and by involving more of the brain during learning, we remember more of what we learn. Everyone may have a mix of learning styles, but your child can develop ability in less dominant styles as well as further develop the styles they use well. Howard Gardner suggested this theory of multiple intelligences, which opposes labelling or restricting learners to one specific intelligence and argues that learners should instead be empowered to engage in different abilities.


Photo Credit(s):

Writing by ben.tinmey licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0



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This post was written by Sarah Welland

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