You will have no doubt come across 'learning styles' at one point of your educational journey or another. There are many theories that suggest that the way we learn is significant in getting the exam results you need. However, in recent years, these have come under scrutiny and criticism. Some critics even go as far as saying that learning styles are a myth and could be causing more harm than good.
This begs the question, should we ditch learning styles altogether? Or is there still some merit in them?
- What are the main learning styles?
- When were learning styles introduced?
- Why are learning styles popular?
- Why are learning styles being challenged?
- Have there been any benefits from the learning styles debate?
- Learning online, in your own way
What are the main learning styles?
Perhaps the most famous theory of learning styles is the VARK Model, which suggests that learners fall into four main categories: visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic. However, around 70 different styles have been suggested overall. Let's take a closer look at the four main ones in a bit more detail.
Visual learners tend to retain information best when it is represented in a diagram format, like a mind-map for example, or by colour coding specific attributes. Such methods might be helpful when it comes to remembering dates as part of a history course or for understanding the relationships between characters in texts studied at A-level and GCSE English.
This method could involve making voice recordings of notes or listening to podcasts, ideal for revising while on the bus or out and about. Another example could be creating mnemonics, like the classic Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, for remembering the colours of the rainbow.
Reading / writing
Some of us find it easy to recall information simply from reading it. Think about your favourite book - there are sure to be passages that you'll be able to bring to the front of your mind without much effort. Similarly, some people retain details better when they jot them down on a list or in bullet points, or some other written format. Note that some versions of the VARK theory leave this out.
As the science students amongst you will know, kinesthetic energy refers to movement. Getting out of the chair and walking around while going over notes or even reciting them out loud is suggested to be a way of remembering information based on the memory of what activity you were doing at the time.
There are several examples of online tests and quizzes you can take to see which of these you might fall into. Here is just one of them, which has a questionnaire alongside further definitions for each style.
When were learning styles introduced?
The concept of learning styles has some origin in the time of Aristotle, in around 334 BC when he first raised the theory that "every child possessed specific talents and skills". Today's approaches, however, lend much to the work of David Kolb, who first outlined his theories on learning styles in 1984, before Neil Fleming later introduced the VARK method we mentioned earlier in 1987.
Why are learning styles popular?
Advocates for learning styles have long made the point that when you know your preferred learning style, you'll be able to use the best methods for that style and ultimately, develop ways that allow you to process information in the most effective way. When it comes to exams and the amount of information you'll be expected to draw upon, it's important that you feel confident that you have understood everything you need to and that you'll be able to recall that knowledge during exam conditions.
There are several reasons why the principles of learning styles have remained popular throughout the years. Some suggest that understanding the ways in which we learn is a fundamental part of education and teaching, others make the case that learning styles make education tailored to individual needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Why are learning styles being challenged?
For many years, the theories and models outlined by Kolb, Fleming, and numerous others, largely went unchallenged. More recently, however, a perceived lack of scientific evidence showing a direct link between student grades and their method of learning has called the theories into serious question. Some, including the American Psychological Association, have even gone as far as stating that the models are detrimental to education.
In addition, around thirty prominent individuals from the fields of education, psychology, and neuroscience signed a letter published in The Guardian in 2017, which called the learning styles method to be 'ineffective' and branded it a 'neuromyth'. The letter goes on to suggest that evidence-based practices should replace the learning style approach altogether.
Despite the challenges and concerns, the learning styles approach is still widely used in UK schools, suggesting that there is still further research to carry out before the method is completely discarded.
Have there been any benefits from the learning styles debate?
Interestingly, the intense debates around learning styles has brought into focus the sizeable challenges teachers face, not just on a daily basis with limited resources and even less time, but outside of the classroom. An article published in the University of Cambridge's own magazine in 2023 points to limitations with the process in which educational interventions are rolled out. The article goes on to highlight that significant time and money is being spent on "bogus interventions and frameworks" that are not backed by evidence, leading to a vicious circle of methods that may not actually yield any benefits for students.
Perhaps this is the root cause education needs to address before ditching learning styles once and for all.
Learning online, in your own way
The debate around learning styles is likely to continue for some time. Such is its familiarity, it is still worth keeping the main styles in mind when it comes to revising for your own exams and taking control of your education. You are unique in the way you retain information - as long as you feel that your chosen methods work for you and will help you to succeed, there is no right or wrong.
Here at Oxbridge, we've devised our own complete guide to revision, which explores the various tools and techniques you might already be aware of but are unsure of which ones you should use. Download for free here, or for more details about our range of online A-levels, GCSEs, and specialist courses, speak to one of our learning advisers.