That same year, a Journal of Educational Psychology paper found no relationship between the study subjects’ learning-style preference (visual or auditory) and their performance on reading- or listening-comprehension tests. Instead, the visual learners performed best on all kinds of tests. Therefore, the authors concluded, teachers should stop trying to gear some lessons toward “auditory learners.” “Educators may actually be doing a disservice to auditory learners by continually accommodating their auditory learning style,” the researchers wrote, “rather than focusing on strengthening their visual word skills.”
In our conversation, Willingham brought up another study, published in 2009, in which people who said that they liked to think visually or verbally really did try to think that way: Self-proclaimed visualizers tried to create an image, and self-proclaimed verbalizers tried to form words. But, there was a rub, he said: “If you’re a visualizer and I give you pictures, you don’t remember pictures any better than anyone who says they’re a verbalizer.”
This doesn’t mean everyone is equally good at every skill, of course. Really, Willingham said, people have different abilities, not styles. Some people read better than others; some people hear worse than others. But most of the tasks that we encounter are really suited to only one type of learning. You can’t visualize a perfect French accent, for example.
The VARK questionnaire itself illustrates this problem pretty well. One question, for example, asks:
You are planning a vacation for a group. You want some feedback from them about the plan. You would:
- describe some of the highlights they will experience.
- use a map to show them the places.
- give them a copy of the printed itinerary.
- phone, text, or email them.
But of course, any friend-having human in 2018 would email their friends to coordinate group travel, whether or not that email includes the first three elements. (Another question asks, sweetly, “You are helping someone who wants to go to the airport” and suggests different ways of giving directions, along with the option to simply “go with her.” It depends on the “her” in question, one would assume!)
The “learning styles” idea has snowballed—as late as 2014, more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it. The concept is intuitively appealing, promising to reveal secret brain processes with just a few questions. Strangely, most research on learning styles starts out with a positive portrayal of the theory—before showing it doesn’t work.
Willingham goes so far as to say that people should stop thinking of themselves as visual, verbal, or some other kind of learner. “It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles],” he said, but there’s not any benefit to it, either. “Everyone is able to think in words; everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”