Think You're An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It's Unlikely

Aug 29, 2011
Originally published on August 29, 2011 3:46 pm

We've all heard the theory that some students are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. And still other kids learn best when lessons involve movement.

But should teachers target instruction based on perceptions of students' strengths? Several psychologists say education could use some "evidence-based" teaching techniques, not unlike the way doctors try to use "evidence-based medicine."

Psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, who studies how our brains learn, says teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we're on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it's a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it's presented.

For example, if a teacher believes a student to be a visual learner, he or she might introduce the concept of addition using pictures or groups of objects, assuming that child will learn better with the pictures than by simply "listening" to a lesson about addition.

In fact, an entire industry has sprouted based on learning styles. There are workshops for teachers, products targeted at different learning styles and some schools that even evaluate students based on this theory.

This prompted Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, to look more closely at the learning style theory.

When he reviewed studies of learning styles, he found no scientific evidence backing up the idea. "We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these," he says, "and until such evidence exists, we don't recommend that they be used."

Willingham suggests it might be more useful to figure out similarities in how our brains learn, rather than differences. And, in that case, he says, there's a lot of common ground. For example, variety. "Mixing things up is something we know is scientifically supported as something that boosts attention," he says, adding that studies show that when students pay closer attention, they learn better.

And recent studies find that our brains retain information better when we spread learning over a longer period of time, say months or even a year, versus cramming it into a few days or weeks. Rohrer and colleagues nationwide are currently researching what teaching methods work best for all students, but only using the evidence.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene.

Today in Your Health, we'll hear how to keep children healthy as the new school year begins.

INSKEEP: First, we have a look at how information is absorbed in the classroom. Many educators are tailoring their lessons to the idea that kids learn in different ways. But researchers have found there is not scientific evidence to back up that approach. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Chances are you've heard the idea. One student is a visual learner. Another learns best by hearing. Another, when lessons involve movement. Dan Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He says the theory is that people learn in fundamentally different ways.

Mr. DAN WILLINGHAM (University of Virginia): If you have a student who you believe is a visual learner, you're going to want to introduce the concept of addition to that child visually. So you're going to show that child pictures of groups of objects.

NEIGHMOND: And assume the child will learn better with the pictures than by simply hearing how addition works. This has spawned a learning style industry. There are workshops for teachers, and companies sell products designed for different learning styles, which is why Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, decided to investigate. When he reviewed studies on learning styles he found no scientific evidence backing up the idea.

Mr. DOUG ROHRER (University of South Florida): We have not found any experimental evidence, that is evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these and until such evidence exists we don't recommend that they be used.

NEIGHMOND: Psychologist Willingham says this shouldn't come as a big surprise.

Mr. WILLINGHAM: It seems a little bit odd to suggest that people's brains might work in fundamentally different ways, right. We don't think your heart works in a really qualitatively different way than my heart does. So why shouldn't it be the case that the basic cognitive architecture is the same across individuals?

NEIGHMOND: This doesn't mean people don't have different areas of strength. Some people are more verbally oriented, some more scientifically minded, others more artistic. Willingham says the mistake comes when teachers tailor their instruction to an individual's particular strength. Better, he says, to focus on how our brains learn in similar ways. If you do that, there's lots of common ground. For example, we know all students benefit from variety.

Mr. WILLINGHAM: Mixing things up is something that we know is scientifically supported as something that boosts attention. And we all sort of can feel this intuitively if you've been doing one thing for a long time and then something changes.

NEIGHMOND: In fact scientists have found that variety boosts both attention and retention.

Mr. MARK BORDELON (Pianist): All right. Let's go.

(Soundbite of music)

NEIGHMOND: A good example is music. Pianist Mark Bordelon who lives in Los Angeles, says variety is a big part of his teaching.

Mr. BORDELON: I'm a firm believer that you can't learn anything well unless you learn it twice. And the best way to learn it twice is to learn it differently the second time.

NEIGHMOND: So, for example, students learn to play a piece first as written.

(Soundbite of music)

Then bits of the music are separated, speeded up and practiced in an entirely different way.

(Soundbite of music)

It's the combination of these two learning methods, says Bordelon, that increases the ability to learn and remember. Psychologist Rohrer says there are other teaching techniques that also work for most students. Recent studies find our brains retain information better when we spread learning over a period of time versus cramming it into a few days or weeks.

Mr. ROHRER: Every night in this country a couple of million kids are assigned to do one or two dozen math problems of the same kind - perhaps 24 problems on the quadratic equation. And the data suggests that they're better off if they might just do a dozen of those that night and save the other 12 for subsequent lessons in the year.

NEIGHMOND: Researchers like Rohrer are now working on ways to come up with even more scientifically-based teaching methods that will help all students.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.