Apr 27, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Are you a visual learner, an aural learner, a read/write learner, or a kinesthetic learner? Or are there no such things as “learning styles,” after all? While the proposition that we all learn differently has been around for a while, scientists are still trying to understand the degree to which learning styles matter -- or if they even exist at all.

Here’s a closer look at what we known about learning styles, along with what all of it means for online learners.

A Theory...

New Zealand school inspector Neil Fleming made a puzzling observation in the early 1990s after observing thousands of different classes: Only some teachers were able to reach all of their students. His conclusion? That students have different preferences for how information is presented to them. Today, his “VARK questionnaire” is used to identify an individual’s “learning style.”

Short for “Visual, Auditory, Reading and Kinesthetic,” it categorizes students according to whether they learn best visually, through heard information, by reading, or via “kinesthetic” experiences. (Do you know yours? Learn more here.)

While Fleming wasn’t the first person to propose that differences in learning style exist, his model has become one of the most widely accepted.

---And Its Detractors

However, just because the model is widely accepted doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the truth. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that learning styles may not exist after all -- or that students who study according to what they believe to be their learning style don’t perform better.

Explains cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett for Wired.com, “Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.”

Even if learning styles do hold up, it's likely that most people don’t have a single style, but rather a mix.

What This Means for Online Learners

If you’re a lifelong believer in learning styles, news that they may not actually exist may rattle you. However, even if this is the case, there’s no need for alarm.

Continues Jarrett, “While people are often poor at judging which teaching methods are most effective for them, and while there is little strong evidence for the benefits of matching teaching style to preferred learning style, this does not mean there is no scope for tailoring teaching style to improve learning. For example, as Kirschner and Merrienboer point out, there is evidence that novices learn better from studying examples, whereas those with more expertise learn better by solving problems themselves. Other research shows how learning is improved (for most everyone) by combining different activities – such as drawing alongside more passive study.”

Meanwhile, psychologist Daniel Willingham told The Atlantic, “It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles]. “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?”

The takeaway for online learners? Just because you may or may not have a learning style doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from different approaches to learning. Nor does it mean you can’t thrive if materials aren’t presented in your preferred learning style.  After all, learning is a skill that can be improved upon. Proposes Riitta Aikkola of Vaasa University of Applied Sciences, “Learning something new always takes commitment and self discipline as well as conscious practice. Your conception of what learning is and your motivation to study will determine your success….Obstacles to learning usually have to do with one's attitudes and conception of oneself as a learner and one's conception of learning, all of which have themselves been learned.”

In other words, instead of viewing differences in teaching/learning styles as an obstacle, use them as an opportunity to strengthen yourself as a learner. The best part? As an online learner and regardless of whether or not learning styles exist, you may be uniquely positioned to achieve due to the multimedia nature of most online curricula. Thanks to modern technology, it's easier than ever for students to find and use the tools that help them study and retain information best.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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