Debunked ‘learning styles’ theory

still part of gold-standard EFL qualifications

But Cambridge English has now pledged to remove the phrase from Celta and Delta syllabuses

By: Claudia Civinini


Cambridge English Language Assessment has been referring to the concept of ‘learning styles’ in its Celta and Delta EFL qualifications even though the theory has long been debunked by academics, it has emerged.

The Cambridge English Teaching Framework, which underpins the two qualifications, contains references to learning styles – ‘visual, auditory, kinaesthetic’ – under the competency area ‘understanding learners’.

Teacher trainers have confirmed that trainees on these courses have been required to show an awareness of their students’ learning style, both in their assignments and their teaching practice.

When the Gazette raised the issue, Cambridge English – a department of the University of Cambridge – said it was in the process of updating its course documentation, adding that it would remove the phrase ‘learning styles’ and replace it with ‘learning preferences’. Cambridge English explained its inclusion of learning styles, saying it is ‘a concept which teachers should be aware of, alongside other concepts’, and that teachers should use ‘a variety of teaching methods’. (See response below.)

The theory says students learn best if taught in their preferred style – most commonly visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

Authors and Celta and Delta teacher trainers Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries told the Gazette that some teachers now openly express their disagreement with the theory in their course assignments, but the majority still believe in it.

According to a recent survey they conducted on 342 teachers across the US, Mexico, Brazil and Canada, 90 per cent of teachers still believe in the learning styles theory, despite it being frequently debunked.

This could be due to the fact that, beyond Cambridge English, many teacher training programmes across the world make reference to the theory.

Professor Paul Kirschner from the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands – a vocal opponent of the theory – compared it to astrology or homeopathy. ‘No one would think that doctors should be trained in homeopathy,’ he said. ‘Urban legends such as learning styles should not be part of the curriculum for teachers.’

In March the Guardian newspaper published a letter signed by thirty educational psychologists and neuroscientists, including four from Cambridge, insisting that there was no evidence to back the idea of learning styles.

Trinity College London removed references to learning styles from its Tesol syllabuses and assessment criteria in 2016. The decision was motivated by the lack of supporting evidence for the theory and by the awareness of its potential detrimental effect on student learning, said Ben Beaumont, Trinity Tesol qualification manager. References to learning styles in the syllabuses have been substituted with ‘ways of learning’ and ‘learning strategies’.

Pic courtesy: takomabibelot

One-style-per-student concept is ‘reductive and limiting’

Evelina Galaczi, head of research strategy at Cambridge English, explained why the concept of ‘learning styles’ was included in their teacher-training syllabuses. ‘In the Cambridge English Teaching Framework and in the Celta/Delta syllabuses, we refer to “learning styles” as a concept which teachers should be aware of, alongside other concepts.

We believe that a prescriptive one-style-per-student concept is reductive and limiting. This is reflected in our materials and qualifications, which recommend that teachers use a variety of teaching methods rather than link specific learning methods to specific learning styles. We are currently updating our public documentation and the term “learning preferences” will be used to capture the fact that this concept is not a simple binary dichotomy or a finite set of styles.

‘We see learning preferences as a core idea within adaptive/personalised learning and differentiated teaching. Different learning materials and teaching approaches add value to learners in different ways, and the most effective and efficient learning is achieved through a varied teaching ‘toolbox’ which personalises teaching to individual needs, wants and preferences, without being reductive. Our approach is also based on a belief that learners exist in four intersecting worlds of learning: personal, educational, social and assessment, and the notion of learning preferences provides insights into their personal and educational worlds.’

“Make teachers aware of the basic principles of science”

The Gazette spoke to a number of experts about how time could be better spent on teacher training courses instead of learning about discredited educational theories such as learning styles.

Professor Paul Kirschner said that teachers should be better trained in ‘human cognitive architecture’ – how the brain learns and processes information. ‘This would be much more useful than worthless and actually harmful tricks such as learning styles.’

Teachers could also dedicate more time to special education needs training, said Dr Nathalia Gjersoe from the University of Bath. She suggested that teachers needed to be trained in recognising and supporting children with early language disorders that can lead to behavioural problems and under-achievement. She added that critical thinking should be part of teacher training, as ‘being able to parse evidence from expert opinion is not straightforward and needs to be taught’.

Professor Bruce Hood from the University of Bristol added that teachers needed to be trained in critical analysis and be ‘made aware of the basic principles of science: replication and validity’.

Dr Michelle Ellefson, lecturer in psychology at the University of Cambridge, said that learning styles should be replaced by ‘more effective practices’.

Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries have suggested training teachers in effectively using their students’ prior knowledge to support learning. ‘Why not focus on evidence-based ways that we know are more helpful to learners?’ they asked in their presentation on neuromyths at Iatefl.

What’s the harm?

With the debunking of any pseudoscientific theory and practice comes the inevitable question: what’s the harm? Even if learning styles are not backed by evidence, why shouldn’t teachers use them in their classroom if they believe they are effective?

Experts said that learning styles theory uses up time and resources that could be better allocated, and can sometimes become excuses for ineffective teaching or poor student behaviour.

And the theory’s premise is faulty: just as we might prefer cakes, even though they are not the best thing to eat for our health, a students’ preferred learning style is not necessarily the best way for them to learn.

And if teachers plan according to their students’ supposed learning styles – which are often measured with unreliable tests – they might make teaching ineffective.

‘It’s the mathemathantic effect, the killing of learning,’ explained Professor Paul Kirschner. ‘Let’s imagine we have a very organised student who prefers information presented in a systematic way. She would learn more from having to organise the information herself, which she would certainly be able to do. By always presenting information in her preferred way, it would kill learning.’

In fact, as Dr Nathalia Gjersoe added, people learn best when engaging with information in a combination of ways and when taken out of their comfort zone.

Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford added that the way learning styles are determined is through ‘invalid tests’, which are a waste of time for teachers and could potentially mean that students are taught in a less effective way ‘because of a false belief about what will suit them’.

Experts say that individual differences in how we approach learning are important, but pigeonholing students into a style, just like dividing the whole world population in twelve groups according to their date of birth, may not be the best way to respect those differences.