Learning Styles don’t matter

There is a vast amount of current, sometimes contradictory, literature on "learning styles". What are you going to do with it? So some people are holists and some serialists, some activists, reflectors, theorists or pragmatists, some visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. And some are bright and some just plain thick. So what?

In this class there is a serialist pragmatist kinaesthetic learner (who is also field-dependent, not to mention his MBTI) primarily a convergent thinker, high on logico-mathematical intelligence but low on linguistic intelligence, sitting next to a holist, reflector, primarily visual and field-independent... who is also chronically shy (no-one mentions that). Even assuming that such things can be assessed with some validity and reliability, which is itself far from clear — what are you going to do about it? There are after all thirty other students in the class, each of whom could be described in similar terms. And two-thirds of them are female, and one-third male (two of whom are gay). Five of the class are from ethnic minorities, two are dyslexic, one is visually impaired, and three are clinically depressed (although only one of them knows it). Six are "mature" students — at least, they are chronologically over 25.

In other words, a fairly typical class, composed of people. (One of them has his Yorkshire terrier in a holdall, but perhaps we can ignore that.) You, of course are...

Some of the students are really keen on the subject; some decided after three weeks that they had made a wrong choice, but it was too late to change. Some are here because it is a required course.

All the theory tells you to value these students equally. All learning styles are valid and to be respected. No-one must be disadvantaged: the only quality you can disparage is the notorious surface learner who must be won over.

You are all different. You already know this, of course, on a less than formal basis. You recognise that when one student pipes up with, "Can I just ask a question...?" you can expect something really stupid and irrelevant, and that when another starts the same way it will really put you on the spot. Some will make notes even of your jokes, and some will relish the little exercises you set up to break up your presentation, while others will whinge that you are holding back on the correct answers.

Can you cope with all this information? Can you even imagine how you might adapt your teaching to suit each of this bunch? How many times might you have to re-cast a point to make sure it connected with all these minds? And how many of them would switch off each time you repeated it?

Of course, if you have the luxury of working with a small group of learners, you may very well tailor your teaching style to address their particular preferences — but you will know those preferences as part of your wider and deeper knowledge of them as people (probably) and not through superficial testing mechanisms which seek to force them into pre-determined pigeon-holes.

Or, if you were devising a resource-based learning programme to go out to thousands of learners (as the Open University does), it might — perhaps — be reasonable to produce different versions for all the claimed learning styles. But this is the real world, and real time. Learning styles theory is an academic luxury: the students not only have rights but also responsibilities. You can't tune in to all of them, so they have to tune in to you.

Moreover, as the page on supporting students will argue, pandering to learning styles may be doing the students a disservice: they will benefit more from adapting and becoming versatile, more able to respond both to formal teaching and learning from experience, than they will from having everything made as easy as possible for them in your particular subject. 

Go here for a marginally more objective account


I wrote the above in May 2002: in June 2004, the Learning and Skills Development Agency published a major study on learning styles, which provides a much firmer basis for, if anything, even greater scepticism:

And in 2005, the following report from the Demos thinktank made similar points:

Coffield returned to the fray in 2008 with his excellent pamphlet Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority. In it he bemoans the wilful failure to learn exhibited by the educational community;

Our detailed and systematic review found that ‘... there is no evidence that the model is either a desirable basis for learning or the best use of investment, teacher time, initial teacher education and professional development’ (Coffield et al. 2004a: 35).

Put simply, it doesn’t work.

Yet the VAKT approach persists. For example, From theory to practice: using differentiation to raise levels of attainment by Cheryl Jones (2006), part of LSN’s 14–19 Vocational Learning Support Programme – so no straw man and part of the officially-funded advice to the sector – still blithely maintains in the face of the evidence we presented that ‘this does not mean that it is no longer relevant to consider learning styles’ (Jones 2006: 7).

How more explicit could we have been? Let me try harder this time. There is no scientific justification for teaching or learning strategies based on VAKT and tutors should stop using learning style instruments based on them. There is no theory of VAKT from which to draw any implications for practice. It should be a dead parrot. It should have ceased to function.

Coffield (2008:32)

(The document to which he refers has since been withdrawn. But Mark--a commenter on the Questing Vole blog, notes;

"You might also be interested in these articles from 2005, prior to the booklet being withdrawn:



The whole National Strategies website was closed in June 2011, but the booklet is still available on some local authority websites:

e.g. http://eduwight.iow.gov.uk/teacher/train_and_develop/images/Unit19LearningStyles.pdf"

Many thanks, Mark, and now thanks to Tony Fisher for correcting links.)

Sam Shepherd has a good piece on his blog here (19 July 2012)

In the academic arena, the British Journal of Educational Psychology has a special section on recent developments, introduced here. (12 June 2013)

And Marina Stepanenko has translated this page into Czech, posting it here. No I don't know why it is on a site for car parts, either!

Up-dated 2 September 2013

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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