Learning styles

Low impact for very low cost, based on moderate evidence.

Cost Per Pupil Cost estimate: Less than £80 per pupil per year. cost per pupil
Evidence Rating Evidence estimate: Two or more rigorous meta-analyses. evidence rating Average impact: + 2 additional months. Impact +2 months

What is it?

The idea underpinning learning styles is that we all have different approaches or styles of learning and that learning will therefore be more effective or more efficient if we are taught accordingly (e.g. a student may prefer words versus pictures or analysis versus listening).

How effective is it?

It has proved difficult to identify reliably any consistent learning ‘styles’ in young people and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style. Learning preferences do change in different situations and over time and there is some evidence that cognitive preference and task type may be connected (e.g. visualisation in some areas of mathematics is particularly valuable). However, studies where targeted learning takes place in conjunction with activities that match an identified learning style have not convincingly shown any benefit, particularly for low attaining pupils. In fact, in some studies the controls did better than the learning styles groups. Overall impacts recorded are low or negative, suggesting that only one or two pupils in a class of 25 might benefit from this approach. 

It is particularly important not to label primary age pupils or for them to believe that their lack of success is due to their learning style, but the lack of impact of learning styles has been documented at all stages of education. 

Where gains have been documented these may come from pupils taking responsibility for learning (see Meta-cognition) rather than directly from the use of learning styles approaches.

How secure is the evidence?

Overall the picture is consistent and reasonably robust. The evidence for the lack of impact (and in some cases detrimental effect) of using learning styles approaches has been shown in a number of studies. The unreliability of learning styles tests has also been the focus of a number of reviews.

For full references, please click here.

What are the costs?

The costs are relatively low, though some of the available tests of learning styles require purchase.Typically, these about about £5 per pupil.

What should I consider?

  • Learners are very unlikely to have a single learning style, so restricting pupils to activities matched to their reported preferences may damage their progress. This is especially true for younger learners in primary schools whose preferences are still very flexible.

  • Labelling students as a particular kind of learner is likely to undermine their belief that they can succeed through effort and to provide an excuse for failure.

  • It appears to be more promising to focus on other aspects of motivation to engage pupils in learning activities.

  • It certainly appears to be beneficial to have different representations of ideas when developing understanding, but this does not demonstrate that individual learners have a learning style.

  • How are you encouraging pupils to take responsibility for identifying how they can succeed in their learning and develop their own successful strategies and approaches?