Believing You’re a ‘Visual Learner’ Doesn’t Exactly Help You Learn Much

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Photo: George Silk/Getty Images/The LIFE Picture Co

The idea of “learning styles” — the idea that everyone has a “best” way of taking in and retaining information — is a pervasive one. A personal example: If you talk at me, I will quickly forget what you tell me. Send me an email or Slack message, though, and I’ll have a much better chance of remembering the details later, even when I’m away from my phone or computer.

Study after study has suggested, however, that learning styles are mostly a myth. Teaching someone to memorize something according to their preferred learning style, for example, does not result in a significant improvement in their ability to recall that information later. Still, much to the annoyance of psychologists like Christian Jarrett — who included learning styles in his 2014 book Great Myths of the Brain (which Science of Us excerpted here) — this idea refuses to die. A new study, summarized by Jarrett on BPS Research Digest today, helps explain why: Even if learning styles are actually nonsense, it sure doesn’t feel that way.

In this study, researchers asked people their preferred way of taking in new information: Would they rather read? Or do images seem to do a better job of helping new facts take root within their brains? The researchers then showed them 30 pairs of words and 30 pairs of images; later, the experimenters tested how well the volunteers remembered those words and images. Their professed favorite learning style made no difference in how well they remembered either the words or the pictures; people who said they preferred the written word were no likelier to remember those 30 written words than the people who thought of themselves as visual learners, and vice versa.

But they didn’t think so. The study volunteers also told the researchers that they expected that they’d be better at the memory task when dealing with their preferred way of learning. They also, perhaps not surprisingly, all told the researchers that they’d heard of and believed in the idea of learning styles.

For psychology nerds, this is interesting in that it helps explain why this myth has been so hard to kill: It feels true, even if it isn’t. But it also, Jarrett points out, provides some useful advice to anyone trying to learn something new. “[L]earning via our preferred style feels more effective even when it isn’t,” he writes, “an effect that means learning via our preferred style could even be harmful in the sense of giving us false confidence.” On the flip side, you might be underestimating your abilities to retain information when it’s not presented in the way you like best. Perhaps my inability to remember what people have said to me says less about my word-nerd status and more about the fact that my mind has the tiniest tendency to wander away when other people are talking. I suspect I could remember more if I only paid slightly closer attention; I don’t have this problem with audiobooks, after all. You know, I think we all learned something here today.