Veritasium on the biggest myth in education

“When we already believe the world to be a certain way, then we interpret new experiences to fit with those beliefs, whether they actually do or not.”

Thus spake Veritasium

Veritasium: This video is about learning styles. What kind of learner are you?

Audience: [Various interactions with people on the street.]

Veritasium: There is this idea in education that everyone has their own preferred way of learning, their so-called ‘learning style’; if information is presented in accordance with the learning style, then they’ll learn better. Now, there are dozens of different learning style theories, but the most common one identifies four main learning styles: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic, or ‘VARK’ for short. Visual learners learn best from images, demonstrations and pictures. […] Auditory learners learn best from listening to an explanation. […] Reading/writing learners learn best from reading and writing. […] And kinesthetic learners learn best by doing; physically interacting with the world. […]

Now, learning styles make intuitive sense because we know everyone is different. Some people have better spatial reasoning; others have better listening comprehension. We know some people are better readers, while others are good with their hands.

Daniel Willingham: It sort of very much fits with a broad strain of thought. And the recent Western tradition is like we’re all unique, we’re all different. And so you don’t want to say, like, “everybody learns the same way”; that sort of conflicts with our feelings about what it means to be human.

Veritasium: So, doesn’t it make sense that people should learn better in their own preferred learning style? Well, teachers certainly seem to think so. A survey of nearly 400 teachers from the UK and the Netherlands found that over 90% believed that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.

The misconception: Just like every professor has a different of style of teaching, you have a different style of learning. But when his teacher starts using visuals, Jonathan finds it easier to focus and understand the material, so he might be a visual learner.

Veritasium: Can you tell me what that means to you? What does it mean to be a visual learner?

Guy in black jacket: To me, it means that for me to learn something, sometimes I need to draw it, or I need to write it down, or I need to see a picture or a movie.

‘Honey’: For example, science classes: I get bored easily just listening, and I think it’s more interesting for me to actually be able to do it.

Veritasium: How do you know that you’re a visual learner?

Smart guy!: I don’t. I just assume.

Veritasium: To take advantage of learning styles, then, teachers need to do two things. First, identify the learning style of each of their students, and second, teach each student in accordance with their learning style. On the VARK website, it says: “Once you know about VARK, its power to explain things will be a revelation”. But, before you take an online learning styles quiz, it’s a good idea to ask, “do learning styles even exist?” I mean, do you have one? And if you’re taught in accordance with it, would you learn better?

Well, you could test this by running a randomized control trial, where first you would identify learners with at least two different learning styles, say, visual and auditory; and then randomly assign the learners to one of two educational presentations: one visual, one auditory. So, for half of the students the experience will match their learning style, and, for the other half, it won’t. And then you give everyone the same test. If the learning style hypothesis is correct, the results should show better performance when the presentation matches the learning style than when they’re mismatched.

I tried a very unscientific version of this experiment on the street. For some people, I matched their learning style, so I showed visual learners pictures of 10 items. But for other visual learners, I read out the items instead.

Veritasium: Bell, penguin, Sun…

Audience: [Interviewees on the street trying to remember the list of things.]

Veritasium: Most people could remember only about five or six things. […] But a few could remember substantially more, say, eight or nine items. […] But the reason didn’t seem to be because the presentation matched their preferred learning style, but because they employed a memory strategy.

‘Honey’: So, like, as you were showing, I was like making an order in my head, so, as I saw more, I would just add it to the list, and I was repeating the list as I was looking at them so I could just say it out loud.

Veritasium: Did you try a strategy while you were looking at those pictures?

‘Story guy’: Yeah. So I guess I tried, like, creating a story because it’s easier to remember a story than just individual objects. So I try to, like, tie it all into one story.

Veritasium: This is obviously anecdotal evidence, but rigorous studies like the one I outlined have been conducted. For example, one looked at visualizers versus verbalizers instead of visual versus auditory learners. The study was computer based. So, first, students’ learning styles were assessed using questions like, “would you rather read a paragraph or see a diagram describing an atom?” The researchers also provided some challenging explanations with two buttons: ‘Visual Help’ or ‘Verbal Help’. The visual one played a short animation, whereas the verbal help gave a written explanation. From these measures combined, the researchers categorized the students as either visualizers or verbalizers, and then the students were randomly assigned to go through a text-based or picture-based lesson on electronics. When a student hovered their mouse over keywords in the lesson in the text-based group, a definition and clarification came up; but in the picture group, an annotated diagram was shown instead. And, after the lesson, the students did a test to assess their learning. The students whose preferred learning style matched their instruction performed no better on the test than those whose instruction was mismatched. The researchers ran the test again with 61 non-college-educated adults and found exactly the same result.

But learning styles are a preference. So, how strongly do learners stick to their preference? Well, in a 2018 study, during the first week of semester, over 400 students at a university in Indiana completed the VARK questionnaire and they were classified according to their learning style. Then, at the end of the semester, the same students completed a study strategy questionnaire. So, how did they actually study during the term? Well, an overwhelming majority of students used study strategies which were supposedly incompatible with their learning style; and the minority of students who did, did not perform significantly differently on the assessments in the course.

The visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic — or ‘VARK’ model — came about from Neil Fleming, a school inspector in New Zealand. Describing the origins of VARK, he says, “I was puzzled when I observed excellent teachers who did not reach some learners, and poor teachers who did. I decided to try to solve this puzzle. There are, of course, many reasons for what I observed. But one topic that seemed to hold some magic, some explanatory power, was preferred modes of learning; ‘modal preferences'”. And thus VARK was born. There was no study that revealed students naturally cluster into four distinct groups, just some magic that might explain why some teachers can reach students while others can’t.

But how can this be? If we accept that some people are more skilled at interpreting and remembering certain kinds of stimuli than others, like visual or auditory, then why don’t we see differences in learning or recall with different presentations? Well, it’s because what we actually want people to recall is not the precise nature of the images or the pitch or quality of the sound; it’s the meaning behind the presentations.

There are some tasks that obviously require the use of a particular modality. Learning about music, for example, should have an auditory component. Similarly, learning about geography will involve looking at maps. And some people will have greater aptitude to learn one task over another. Someone with perfect pitch, for example, will be better able to recall certain tones in music. Someone with excellent visual-spatial reasoning will be better at learning the locations of countries on a map. But the claim of learning style theories is that these preferences will be consistent across learning domains. The person with perfect pitch should learn everything better auditorially; but that is clearly not the case. Most people will learn geography better with a map.

Review articles of learning styles consistently conclude there is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. In a 2009 review the researchers note, “the contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated”.

Daniel Willingham: What we’re expecting is, if your style was honoured, you’re going to perform better than if you had some experience that conflicted with your style. And this is where we don’t see any support for the learning styles theory.

Veritasium: One of the reasons many people find learning styles so convincing is because they already believe it to be true. For example, they might already think that they’re a visual learner, and then when a teacher shows them a diagram of, say, a bike pump and suddenly the concept clicks, well, they interpret this as evidence for their visual learning style.

Daniel Willingham: You already believe that learning styles is right. When you have an experience, the first thing you think is, “is that in some way consistent with learning styles?” And if it is, you don’t think further.

Veritasium: … when in reality that diagram might just be a great diagram that would have helped anyone learn. When we already believe the world to be a certain way, then we interpret new experiences to fit with those beliefs, whether they actually do or not.

So, if learning styles don’t improve learning, then what does? Well, there’s a large body of literature that supports the claim that everyone learns better with multimodal approaches, where words and pictures are presented together rather than either words or pictures alone. […] And this is known as the multimedia effect. And it explains, in part, at least, why videos can be such powerful tools for learning when the narration complements the visuals. […] In my PhD research, I found explicit discussion of misconceptions was essential in multimedia teaching for introductory physics. […]

Ultimately, the most important thing for learning is not the way the information is presented, but what is happening inside the learner’s head. People learn best when they’re actively thinking about the material, solving problems or imagining what happens if different variables change. I talked about how and why we learn best in my video ‘The Science of Thinking‘, so check that out.

Now, the truth is, there are many evidence-based teaching methods that improve learning; ‘learning styles’ is just not one of them. And it is likely, given the prevalence of the learning styles misconception, that it actually makes learning worse. I mean, learning styles give teachers unnecessary things to worry about, and they may make some students reluctant to engage with certain types of instruction. And all the time and money spent on learning styles and related training could be better spent on interventions that actually improve learning. You are not a visual learner, nor an auditory learner, nor a kinesthetic learner; or, more accurately, you are all these kinds of learner in one. The best learning experiences are those that involve multiple different ways of understanding the same thing. And best of all, this strategy works not just for one subset of people, but for everyone.

This part of the video was sponsored by Google Search. Now, there are lots of topics out there that are controversial, like learning styles, for example. Most people believe learning styles are a thing, whereas educational researchers find no robust evidence for them. And if you search for ‘learning styles’, you’ll get lots of sites with resources and quizzes. But if you search for ‘learning styles debunked’, well, then you’ll find articles about how there is very little evidence for the learning styles hypothesis.

I think one of the most common traps people fall into is only searching for information that confirms what they already believe. A common mistake is putting the answer you’re looking for right in the search query. A better idea is to try another search, adding ‘debunked’ or ‘false’ at the end and see what comes up. And Google makes it easy to get more detail about the source of the information. Just click the three dots next to any search result and then you can judge for yourself whether the information is trustworthy and if you want to visit the site. A Google search is meant to surface the most relevant information for your query, but it’s up to you to formulate that query; try a few different searches and assess whether the information is reliable. And the whole point of Veritasium is to get to the truth. So, I’m excited to encourage everyone to think more critically about how we get information. I want to thank Google for sponsoring this part of the video, and I want to thank you for watching.

The transcript above was was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, Communication, Core thought, Education, perception, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Veritasium on the biggest myth in education

  1. This is so interesting and I do agree about different learning styles. But a teacher would have to be so versatile to teach so many different learn styles in one class room simultaneously.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. leavergirl says:

    Sorry, a rabbit trail. Some perspicatious notes on what has gone wrong with American politics, by a leftie (I heard) who has spoken with a lot of righties and thought about it a great deal.


    • pendantry says:

      Uh… I’m not clear what point you’re making. Your comment and the link you offer appear to have absolutely nothing to do with this post; and the only reason I haven’t deleted it is because we’ve known each other so long, and I don’t want you to feel that you’re being ignored or, to use the current vernacular, ‘cancelled’. But I would ask you, please, to stay on topic.

      (A rabbit… ‘trail’? Looks like a hole, to me. Don’t get bitten by any vorpal bunnies.)


      • leavergirl says:

        Sounds good. It’s a topic both of us have shown interest in. Btw, I was happy to see that the contested bill in Texas allows for voter ID via last 4 digits of one’s social sec. number. Free to all. Ok. Done. :-) Will wait until you raise the topic again.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is interesting but at some point a teacher has to just decide how to teach. They can’t teach 20 different ways all the time
    Laugh! It just makes sense


  4. jilldennison says:

    Fascinating!!! Thanks for sharing this … I want to come back to it when I have a bit more time, for this is interesting. Oh, and about the copyright thing? I frequently post OpEds that are technically not supposed to be copied, but once I found that WaPo wanted to charge me hundreds of dollars just to share a picture, I decided … what the heck … if they decide to sue me, well, as my late ex-husband used to say, you can’t get blood out of a turnip!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ellen Hawley says:

    Interesting post. A hundred years ago, I copyedited a book about teaching, and it included advice about learning styles. I don’t seem to remember that it had footnotes.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: ‘The climate is always changing’: true, but not helpful | Wibble

  7. Paulo says:

    Growing up, the whole learning styles bit was so ingrained in my education system that I did not think to question it. Only recently did I learn that these ideas didn’t hold water when scrutinized. Thanks for helping to shed light on the problematic idea of “learning styles”.

    Liked by 1 person

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