The study of learning styles aims to understand the different ways that learners are able to take in and process new knowledge. It seeks to find the best practices to help a learner absorb, comprehend, and retain a piece of information. In recent years, many instructional designers have devoted their time to come up with different learning style theories that aim to ease new knowledge acquisition. However, one big question in the world of learning styles, particularly among skeptics, is: Do learning styles really exist?
The lack of reliable studies looking over the effectiveness of learning styles in the classrooms is one big issue that continues to plague it. In their study “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review,” Coffield and his colleagues bemoaned that while there are several researches available, they all have “poor reliability, poor validity, and a negligible impact on teaching and learning.” The authors also raised concerns on how the abundance of learning style theories in the 21st century makes things even more complex, and that many of these theories contradict each other.
Barbara Ferrel is another scholar who has expressed concern about the gap between learning style theories and empirical results. In her study, “A factor analytic comparison of four learning-styles instruments,” she tested four learning style theories and found that all the theories were not able to deliver what they promised.
The commercialization of learning styles is a new issue that haunts the concept. Steve Draper, an academic at the University of Glasgow’s Psychology School, said that commercialization poses a big threat in measuring the effectiveness of learning style theories. Another study backed this claim and found that while many of those who bought a learning module based on their personal preference, the lesson never delivered the results expected from someone who fits the said learning style.
In their study, Coffield and his colleagues concluded that educators and designers should put more attention on learners’ personalities and not on learning style theories. They suggested that there will be greater promotion on how people can enhance their learning, and supported the claim that self-development has great potential for a learner to acquire advantages and disadvantages of a specific learning style theory. However, both Coffield and his colleagues agreed that sticking to any particular learning style might create some restrictions to changes in teaching.
The lack of reliable data is one cause that continues to fuel questions on the existence of learning styles. The “personalization” trend in the 21st century has added another problem, as it has made it more complex and much more difficult to assess whether learning styles truly exist. Coffield and his team said it best: In order for learning styles to bury concerns over their existence and effectiveness, instructional designers and scholars need to exert extra effort to discuss problems faced in the learning styles research. This includes the need for deeper research on the psychological aspects of learning theories and creating unity among researchers over recommendations on teaching and learning styles.