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The controversy, myths and harms of 'learning styles'

As Tefl and Celta teachers teaching English as a second language, we have routinely been told that in order to be effective educators, we must identify and cater to individual students' learning styles, the three most common being:


Auditory learners- where we learn best by listening to things

Visual learners-where we learn best by seeing things

Kinaesthetic learners-where we learn best by doing/engaging in physical activities.

The basic idea behind the use of 'Learning Styles' is that teaching students according to their style will result in improved learning.


Paradoxically, the varied researches below regarding methodology and pedagogy shed new light on how teaching and learning has entered a new era.

Dr. Tesia Marshik (Assistant Professor of Psychology whose educational psychology include student motivation, self-regulation and teacher-student relationships), reveals that although 90% of students believe that they have a specific learning style, research findings explain how/why this belief is problematic and why the same belief among schoolteachers persists despite the lack of evidence (Simmonds.2014).

One of the harms associated with the continued use of Learning Style is 'pigeonholing'; labelling a student as a learner, which can not only be misleading but also dangerous. If a teacher thinks that a student has a particular learning style, that may prevent the student from trying other strategies, likewise it would cause the student to shut down and lose interest if the teacher is not consistent with the preferred style, which would in turn perpetuate failure. Not because the student could not learn that way, but because he/she would give up and stop trying. This means that all of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways, and are not limited as we sometimes think we are. Other proposed harms include wasting of resources on an ineffective method, undermining the credibility of education research/practice and the creation of unrealistic expectations of teachers by students(Pashler et al.2008; Riener and Willingham 2010;Dekker et al.2012;Roher and Pashler,2012;Dandy and Bendersky,2014;Willingham et al. 2015).

While there is not enough consensus among teachers, academics, politicians and other stakeholders, about which path is best for improving and maximising Life Long Learning, there is no doubt that teacher development is a fundamental aspect of improving learning outcomes.

Recently we have seen a shift in what is expected in education where schools have moved on from being places that purely dispense knowledge to places where learning is guided and facilitated. Developing 21st-century skills to help prepare learners for the workplace of the future is another area being promoted for teachers to add to their teaching repertoire.

Indeed, teachers today face an almost insurmountable amount of information regarding what they should be doing in their classroom to be effective teachers. For any new pedagogies to be effective it is not possible without adequate support, which includes a schooling ethos and infrastructure that actively endorses such practices. Adopting a structured and consistent approach to teacher education, one that takes on board and addresses all the different stakeholders (e.g. learners, teachers, teacher educators, head teachers, teacher resource persons), can have a remarkable effect on raising the quality of teacher performance.

Inez Camilleri

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