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Roundup on Research: The myth of “learning styles”

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If you have been anywhere where teaching is involved, you have probably heard mention of “learning styles.” “I’m a visual learner” vs. “I’m a hands-on learner” or “My instructor didn’t teach in my learning style” are all the types of commentary that are common when some individuals talk about their own learning. Although it is deeply appealing to be able to categorize individuals into easy methods of learning, unfortunately, it is deeply flawed, has little empirical evidence to support it, and might cause more problems than it solves.

What are learning styles?

To best understand why learning styles are problematic, it is important to clearly define learning styles. The idea of learning styles is that there are stable, consistent methods that individuals take in, organize, process, and remember information, and by teaching those methods, students learn better. 

One popular concept in learning styles posits that the modality of information is critical – a “visual” learner learns best by seeing versus an “auditory” learner who learns best by having things spoken or described to them. Learning style theory would suggest that by using visual aids, a visual learner would organize and retain information better than say, an auditory learner. The implication is that matching modality information to the modality of learning style is critical to student success.

At face value, the concept of learning styles makes sense. Individuals learn differently. Most educational settings are trying to reach large numbers of students in personalized ways.  It would be useful to have an easily applied theory that would help all students learn! As educators, we want to recognize the “uniqueness” of each student and help learners in any way we can. This desire has led educators to look for easier ways to navigate the complexities of teaching. Unfortunately, learning is not that simple.

Do learning styles really exist?

In general, most learning style theories make two presumptions: 

  1. Individuals have a measurable and consistent “style” of learning, and 
  2. Teaching to that style of learning will lead to better education outcomes, and conversely, teaching in a contradictory method would decrease achievement. 

In other words, if you are a visual learner, you should learn best if you see things, regardless of the situation. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you will learn best if you can physically manipulate something, regardless of the topic. However, neither of these two assumptions shows any grounding in research. These two propositions are where we can see the concept of learning styles breaking down.

Are learning styles measurable and consistent?

Did you know that there are actually over 50 different theories of learning styles by various researchers? Researchers have been trying for years to find a correlation between individuals and how to help learning. Some theories suggest the modality of learning matters (like the common VARK theory) while others propose details like time of day and temperature of the room define a learning style. One study that suggested using a cell phone was a learning style (Pursell, 2009).  Just the number of different styles makes it difficult to measure and make sense of an individual style. 

In addition, most learning style inventories rely on a student’s self-report about how they perceive they learn best. These self-reports are generally not validated in any way.  Generally, humans tend to be poor judges of our own learning. Therefore, these surveys are generally measuring “learner preference” rather than “learning style.” You may think you are an auditory learner but until it is validated that you objectively learn better through audio format, it is a preference, not a style. 

Also, when reporting results, many studies will rely on “student satisfaction” as a measure of success, or rely on students’ reflections as a measure of success in a class. For example, many measures of learning styles will ask students how they believe they learn best. Unfortunately, satisfaction with a class or a student’s recollections of success are subjective measures, and generally not accurate (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013, Kirschner, 2017).  While understanding a learner’s preference is useful as is understanding student satisfaction with a lesson, it does not have the same weight as necessitating teaching to that preference. 

Finally, ​​”styles” are unstable and unreliable. The research on learning styles has suggested that these preferences may be unstable – they be topic-specific, but they also change over time (Coffield et al., 2004).  That means that although an individual may be a kinesthetic learner in history this week, that person is a visual learner in math when talking about calculus (but not about geometry), or prefers to learn how to ride a bike kinesthetically instead of reading about it in a book. This questions whether a learning style is a “trait” (or something stable and persisting for a person) or a “state” (something that is temporary and may change). Learning styles as a state of mind are not particularly useful. How can a teacher know the preference of an individual student today in a given subject? 

Does teaching a learning style result in better learning?

Even more importantly, however, is the second assumption – does teaching to an individual’s learning style lead to achievement? Simply put, there is no evidence that supports teaching to a person’s specified learning style results in better learning (Alley, et. al., 2023; Cuevas, 2015; Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Pashler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2020). No study has shown that teaching to an identified learning style results in better retention, better learning outcomes or student success. Instead, we see that teaching to a self-identified learning style has no impact on learning in children or adults (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Paschler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2015, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Some research suggests that some students performed better on tasks when taught in a different modality than their self-identified “learning style” (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Most studies of learning styles use a methodology that uses multiple styles to all learners – meaning that there is no way to isolate learning style to teaching method. This leads us to ultimately conclude that while the concept of learning styles is appealing, at this point, it is still a myth.

Alternate explanations to learning styles

Anecdotally, there are many stories about the success of leveraging “learning styles.” If learning styles are not empirically supported, how are these successes explained? There are alternative explanations for why teaching in multiple methods increases achievement that do not prescribe students into style categories. Multi-modal learning explains how learning improves with various methods of teaching.  

Learning requires sustained attention. Therefore, if an educator can capture and maintain students’ attention, students’ learning outcomes likely improve.  Providing engagement with content in multiple forms – be it through hands-on activities, or different modalities – makes students pay attention to content in different ways, and requires learners to integrate knowledge in new ways. If an educator is using multiple methods and modalities, it’s just more interesting, and students pay more attention, which leads to better learning. Mayer and colleagues (2001, 2003) have extensively studied how students learn with visuals and audio, and the interaction of the two. What he and his colleagues suggest is that by providing dual streams of information in multiple methods engages learners to work harder at understanding the material, which leads to better learning. It may be that the research on learning styles is actually showing that teaching with different modalities is just more interesting to students rather than catering to a particular style of learning ​​(Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006).

Why learning styles are dangerous

While the intentions of learning styles are good, the implications of learning styles are more destructive than helpful.   On the positive side, reflecting on how one learns is always a lesson. However, by focusing on a style suggests that learners are passive vessels at the whim of the method of teaching. Ultimately, most educators want students to actively engage in their learning. The best learning takes place when an individual can connect and incorporate information into his or her personal experiences and understanding. By focusing on a student’s learning style we reinforce a simplistic view of learning. Learning styles suggest that individuals have one way to learn best. Unfortunately, learning is complex, and not easy. This is hard and takes time! It has very little to do with the way information is handed to a learner, but rather, how the learner processes that knowledge once they have it. It is important to remember – learning is within the control of the learner. 

Thinking critically about learning styles

If learning styles do not impact an individual’s ability to learn, why is there so much talk about them? Articles and books are still being published about learning styles and how to tailor teaching to reach every style. Research on teaching and learning is a complicated discipline, and being able to examine theories and concepts like learning styles critically is important to anyone working in education. The challenge is to keep a skeptical eye when you hear about research supporting learning styles and ask the right questions to make sure you are getting good information.

What should you think about the next time you encounter learning styles in the wild?

  1. What framework of learning styles are they referring to? Some are more empirically vetted than others. The most popular learning style VARK (Visual-Auditory-Read/Write-Kinesthetic) is also the least validated. Find out more about the learning style being discussed.
  2. How are they measuring both learning style and success? Are they self-reported? Are they looking at academic results or a self-report of satisfaction with learning?
  3. Is the study carefully controlled? Many studies fail to tailor the learning to a particular style. Rather, the lesson uses all the styles to reach all the students. There is no way to truly measure success.
  4. Learning styles can be controversial with some people. They aren’t necessarily harmful if they encourage people to reflect on teaching and learning in different ways. They can be harmful if students believe that their learning is outside their control.


Alley, S., Plotnikoff, R. C., Duncan, M. J., Short, C. E., Mummery, K., To, Q. G., Schoeppe, S., Rebar, A., & Vandelanotte, C. (2023). Does matching a personally tailored physical activity intervention to participants’ learning style improve intervention effectiveness and engagement? Journal of Health Psychology, 28(10), 889–899.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles?  What research has to say to practice: Learning & Skills Research Center.

Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), 308–333.

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166–171.

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183.

Krätzig, G. P., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 238–246.

Lau, W. & Yuen, A.  (2009).  Exploring the effects of gender and learning styles on computer programming performance:  Implications for programming pedagogy.  British Journal of Educational Technology.  40(4), 696-712

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles:  Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Pursell, D. P.  (2009)  Adapting to student learning styles:  Engaging students with cell phone technology in organic chemistry.  Journal of Chemical Education.  86(10), p1219-1222.

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64–78., B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2020). Providing Instruction Based on Students’ Learning Style Preferences Does Not Improve Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

The Roundup on Research series is intended for faculty and staff who are interested in learning more about the theories, frameworks, and research in online and technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

One of the first questions many educators ask when getting started teaching online is “How do you recreate the experience of a face-to-face classroom in an online environment?” While there are many facets to that question, many instructors refer to the sense of community and connection as a gap that they struggle to overcome. However, much research has been done on the impact and development of learning communities in the online classroom. In this article, we will discuss the influential framework Community of Inquiry (CoI), how it can be used to inform your own teaching, as well as how it has been used to frame online learning research in the research.

Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000)

One of the most used frameworks applied to the understanding of online learning environments is the community of inquiry (CoI) model (Garrison, et. al, 2000). Originally developed by observing asynchronous text-based learning environments, CoI suggests that there are three core interdependent elements to a learning experience: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. The intersection of the three presences results in what is categorized as “deep learning.” Rooted in the belief that learners construct meaning within social contexts (social constructivism), Community of Inquiry makes meaning of how learners interact online to create knowledge.

Three presences: cognitive, teaching, and social

Cognitive presence is the capacity for meaningful construction of learning. Cognitive presence is often what instructors might think of the active learning portion of a class. Indications of cognitive presence include asking questions, engaging in reflection on a topic, and scaffolding engagement with a topic. Cognitive presence can be supported by an instructor asking probing questions, modeling reflection, and encouraging active participation from learners. As the community grows together, other learners may (and should) also participate in the facilitation of cognitive presence.

Teaching presence is the design, structure, and guidance that directs the learning experience. Instructional design is one of the earliest ways to demonstrate teaching presence (course materials, assessments, activities). However, it is also important to consider how the instructor demonstrates active teaching presence throughout the time of the course. This can take the form of weekly introductory emails, specifying expectations for zoom sessions, or providing assistance to a student struggling with a topic. Teaching presence is not isolated to the instructor alone, rather, can also be exhibited by students by providing structure and guidance to fellow students.

Social presence is the ability for participants in the community to represent themselves as whole people complete with emotions and personality. It is easy to focus on the design of a course thinking about the content that needs to be taught or the learning objectives to be met. In a face-to-face classroom, much of the social presence happens spontaneously through a shared location. In an online setting, we design our courses and spaces to encourage the development of social presence. This could involve including an introduction area for students where the instructor shares (and encourages students to share) some pieces of personal information, infusing weekly posts or announcements with personality as well as giving students space to express their own personalities.

CoI in the literature

As one of the prevailing frameworks in current online teaching and learning, the Community of Inquiry model has been in the academic spotlight frequently over the past several years. In a recent search, CoI has been cited in over 1000 articles during the last three years alone. As classrooms transitioned to emergency remote and/or online teaching during the pandemic, CoI has been used to explain students’ motivation in courses (Turk et al., 2022), how to understand the bridge between informal and formal learning (Chatterjee & Parra, 2022), and leveraging learning analytics for student feedback (Yılmaz, 2020). It is also hypothesized that different types of disciplines may have different need profiles for presences, for example, some disciplines may have greater social presence needs vs. teaching presence needs (Arbaugh, 2013).

Most critically, social presence has been associated with student satisfaction in online learning. While teaching and cognitive presence are positively correlated with students’ perceptions of learning (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Turk et al., 2022), social presence was highlighted as faculty transitioned to emergency remote teaching during the pandemic. Studies of social presence have cited timeliness of feedback and coaching (Conklin & Dikkers, 2021), frequency of communication and feedback (D’alessio et al., 2019), and the opportunity for social interactions regardless of whether those opportunities were acted upon (Weidlich & Bastiaens, 2019) as ways to build social presence. The benefits of Increased social presence suggest decreased issues with academic integrity (Eshet et al., 2021), increased student performance (D’alessio et al., 2019), and increased higher-order thinking (Stein et al., 2013).

Critiques of CoI

While being one of the most popular frameworks leveraged in online teaching and learning right now, CoI is not without critique. First, it assumes that learning is inherently social. If your teaching philosophy does not align with the underlying beliefs of social-based learning (like constructivism), this may not be the best framework.

In Xin’s (2012) critique she notes the challenges of parsing out what is a “social presence” interaction (since CoI assumes all learning is social) from the other types of presences. How are cognitive presence and teaching presence different if they are also inherently social? In addition, because CoI is rooted in the written communication between community members, is there a difference between what happens in written, asynchronous communication versus what may take place more spontaneously with spoken, synchronous communication? Others have suggested that CoI does not take into account interpersonal contributions to learning. Learners may also need to take responsibility for their learning, and they may not always be invested in a learning community  (Shea et al., 2014; Wertz, 2022).

Finally, CoI was developed during a time when synchronous communication (like videoconferencing) was at a premium. The research has not yet determined whether CoI applies equally as well when a portion of communication is taking place synchronously.

How to incorporate CoI into your online design

One of the reasons Community of Inquiry is so popular is because it can be used proactively as a framework for creating a more engaging learning environment. Facilitating an online course can feel like teaching to a black box. CoI provides a way to be proactive in development to make teaching online more effective. The best way to leverage CoI is to think about the three types of presences and how you are planning to address them each week.

Since CoI is rooted in active communication, one of the best things to do is to create a communication/engagement plan.

Ideas for increasing teaching presence:

  • Write weekly introductions and weekly summaries. Consider including points that you may have found particularly interesting and/or general comments on discussions within class.
  • Use the Announcements feature to post timely updates.
  • Return emails and assignments within a set expectation. For example, “I will return short assignments within 3 days. Our longer papers will be returned within 7 days”
  • Create a survey for students to get feedback on organization/communication. Make adjustments based on feedback, and then communicate those changes back to students. Students need to know that you have made changes based on their feedback.

Ideas for increasing cognitive presence

  • In videoconferencing (like Zoom), create handouts or guided notes so students can be active during lecture.
  • Tools like Persuall can engage students asynchronously with communications on readings.
  • Use case studies, application, and reflection assignments to encourage students to consider content topics and make meaningful connections
  • In videoconferencing (like Zoom), create handouts or guided notes so students can be active during lecture.
  • Tools like Persuall can engage students asynchronously with communications on readings.
  • Use case studies, application, and reflection assignments to encourage students to consider content topics and make meaningful connections

Ideas for increasing social presence

  • Social presence is facilitated by the instructor. Demonstrate commitment to connection with students. Create a communication plan. Students frequently cite feedback from instructors as a critical aspect of feeling connected in a class. Give students expectations for timliness of feedback and provide enough detail to build an academic relationship.
  • Create space for social interactions during Zoom sessions. Take the first 3 minutes for small talk, have a question of the day, or use a poll to encourage students to share about themselves if they feel comfortable.
  • Use a discussion board for informal conversations. Consider a theme – favorite meme, favorite place to travel, food that reminds you of home. Make sure that as the instructor, you participate as well.

If you are interested in learning more about Community of Inquiry, visit the CoI website.


Arbaugh, J. B. (2013). Does academic discipline moderate CoI-course outcomes relationships in online MBA courses? The Internet and Higher Education, 17, 16–28.

Chatterjee, S., & Parra, J. (2022). Undergraduate Students Engagement in Formal and Informal Learning: Applying the Community of Inquiry Framework. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 50(3), 327–355.

Conklin, S., & Dikkers, A. G. (2021). Instructor Social Presence and Connectedness in a Quick Shift from Face-to-Face to Online Instruction. Online Learning, 25(1).

D’alessio, M. A., Lundquist, L. L., Schwartz, J. J., Pedone, V., Pavia, J., & Fleck, J. (2019). Social presence enhances student performance in an online geology course but depends on instructor facilitation. Journal of Geoscience Education, 67(3), 222–236.

Eshet, Y., Steinberger, P., & Grinautsky, K. (2021). Relationship between statistics anxiety and academic dishonesty: A comparison between learning environments in social sciences. Sustainability (Switzerland)13(3), 1–18.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education2(2), 87–105.

Shea, P., Hayes, S., Uzuner-Smith, S., Gozza-Cohen, M., Vickers, J., & Bidjerano, T. (2014). Reconceptualizing the community of inquiry framework: An exploratory analysis. The Internet and Higher Education, 23, 9–17.

Stein, D. S., Wanstreet, C. E., Slagle, P., Trinko, L. A., & Lutz, M. (2013). From “hello” to higher-order thinking: The effect of coaching and feedback on online chats. Internet and Higher Education, 16(2013), 78–84.

Turk, M., Heddy, B. C., & Danielson, R. W. (2022). Teaching and social presences supporting basic needs satisfaction in online learning environments: How can presences and basic needs happily meet online? Computers & Education, 180, 104432.

Wertz, R. E. H. (2022). Learning presence within the Community of Inquiry framework: An alternative measurement survey for a four-factor model. The Internet and Higher Education, 52, 100832.

Weidlich, J., & Bastiaens, T. J. (2019). Designing sociable online learning environments and enhancing social presence: An affordance enrichment approach. Computers and Education, 142, 103622.

Xin, C. (2012). A Critique of the Community of Inquiry Framework. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education / Revue Internationale Du e-Learning et La Formation à Distance, 26(1), Article 1.

Yılmaz, R. (2020). Enhancing community of inquiry and reflective thinking skills of undergraduates through using learning analytics-based process feedback. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 36(6), 909–921.