Ask the Cognitive Scientist
By Daniel T. Willingham
Question: In 2005, you wrote that there was no evidence supporting theories that distinguish between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. I still attend professional development sessions that feature learning-styles theories, and newer teachers tell me these theories are part of teacher education. Is there any update on this issue?
Answer: Research has confirmed the basic summary I offered in 2005; using learning-styles theories in the classroom does not bring an advantage to students. But there is one new twist. Researchers have long known that people claim to have learning preferences—they’ll say, “I’m a visual learner” or “I like to think in words.” There’s increasing evidence that people act on those beliefs; if given the chance, the visualizer will think in pictures rather than words. But doing so confers no cognitive advantage. People believe they have learning styles, and they try to think in their preferred style, but doing so doesn’t help them think.