Debunking The Learning Styles Myth (And How To Learn Instead)
There's some irony in it, but learning how to learn is perhaps the best thing to do before learning anything else.
If you have spent time in a school in the last few decades, you’ve likely heard about learning styles. According to this theory, not every student learns the same way. Some may be good at “auditory” learning (meaning they absorb information by listening to it), while others may be better at the hands-on approach (making them “tactile learners”). It’s an idea that seems true, as it would explain why certain kids excel in class while the rest lag behind.
Unfortunately, several articles have been written to show that learning styles are actually a myth, or a neuromyth, to be more precise. Earlier this year, a letter in The Guardian that was signed by dozens of psychologists and neuroscientists pleaded teachers to stop trying to teach learning styles in the classroom. It is not necessarily harmful, but it is certainly ineffective. If you want to study smart, you will have to look elsewhere. The good thing is that there are lots of helpful ways you can tailor your learning.
Focus Your Learning On Your Interests
It’s basically common knowledge at this point that you should allow your curiosity to be your guide, but it cannot be overstated how important it is. An article from Mind/Shift explains why "interest" is truly one of the main motivations for learning:
“When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features.”
Essentially, if you’re not interested in what you’re learning, it’s going to take a lot longer to learn it. There are very few people who become very good at something they hate.
The best teachers, according to the survey in the article, are those who were able to communicate their love of their subject to the students. But if you’re learning on your own, it’s best to constantly remind yourself of your own motives.
Think About Your Thinking
If you’re out of school, you’re essentially the master of your own education. Therefore, it’s up to you to really think about the way that you’re thinking, which is more often referred to as metacognition in psychological texts. For one example, Stanford professor Carol Dweck has studied the benefits of having a “growth mindset.” In a TED Talk, she explains the importance of a person believing that they can improve. Dreck studied how students respond to hard problems: some kids got excited at the prospect of a challenge, while others became self-defeating and gave up if the answer didn’t come readily. Students who believed they could solve the problem automatically put themselves ahead of those who did not. By thinking about your thinking and knowing that humans are all able to improve, you can overcome the plateaus and challenges that come your way.
There are many pernicious myths about how people learn, such as the idea that re-reading information is the best way to learn, when in fact the opposite is true. NPR and other organizations continue to educate the public about them. Humans are not great at knowing exactly what methods help them learn, so it is important to remember that if something is not working, you always have the option of moving on to something else.
Use Learning Styles To Your Advantage
Yes, the beginning of this article debunked learning styles as they’re typically used. That doesn’t mean they’re completely useless, though. Studies show that it’s actually best to tailor the learning style to the material — and not the student. Figuring out the best way to present information to yourself or your students is valuable.
There are cases in which combining learning methods, like reading and drawing, helps people remember things better. It is also good to vary the way you study, as it strengthens your abilities overall. You may spend a lot of your study time reading, but sometimes you can mix in audio or video. One of the best methods of retaining new knowledge is either summarizing it or teaching it to someone else.
There are lots of myths about learning, but there are just as many methods to help you. Above all, the most important thing is that you experiment with various approaches in order to find what works best for you.