Mythbusting: The danger of learning styles in careers work

For many years now the notion that individuals can benefit from receiving information in a preferred format (VARK) has attracted the chagrin of revered neuroscientists, academics and educators – in fact a letter (endorsed by 30 distinguished signatories) published in the Guardian in March 2017 could not have been more blunt in its headline, “No evidence to back idea of learning styles”.

So how big a problem is there still and why does it matter to careers work?

In terms of its popularity a recent meta-review of research, published in Frontiers in Education, found little sign of the popularism of learning styles abating.    The study found:

We identified 37 studies representing 15,405 educators from 18 countries around the world, spanning 2009 to early 2020. Self-reported belief in matching instruction to Learning Styles was high, with a weighted percentage of 89.1%, ranging from 58 to 97.6%. 

A quick web search also proved it’s also not difficult to find reference to learning styles in articles and messages aimed at students with a careers rhetoric. See, here, here and here

A cause for concern then is how evidentially robust learning styles are and what, if any, disclaimers or warnings are presented about the reliability of claims to the intended audience? This also connects with the issue of conflating differing concepts as outlined below. 

  • Meshing hypothesis: matching instruction to a students’ preferred learning styles to increase learning
  • Student preferences for different approaches to learning.
  • Theory of multiple intelligences.
  • Cognitive testing e.g. verbal reasoning.

It is a common trap to confuse modal preferences e.g. “I like watching videos”, to then make the leap that this is the most effective method of learning e.g. “I learn best by watching videos”.

My own focus (and of this piece) is the question of why does this matters for careers work?  This becomes more apparent from a quote taken from the Frontiers in Education study.

For example, a student who is categorized as an “auditory learner” may conclude that there is no point in pursing studies, or a career, in visual subjects such as art, or written subjects such as journalism and so be demotivated during those classes.  They might also conclude that they will be more successful in auditory subjects such as music, and thus inappropriately motivated by unrealistic expectations of success and become demotivated if that success does not materialise.

So what happens when teachers or even careers professionals endorse or solidify this view, especially in the face of a mountain of evidence debunking learning styles and the risk (covered earlier) of conflation.  Do careers professionals fall into the same trap as educators?  

Perhaps, given the antecedents of our work this may be no surprise.  Career choice based on identification or assessment of skills whether through introspection or self-evaluation through some other type of diagnostic is not new territory in careers work.  The theoretical roots of the matching approach have historical significance as McCash (2006) highlights the matching paradigm as a dominant discourse of 20th century careers theory.  Even now, careers diagnostic quizzes based on matching remain at the forefront of a careers professionals toolkit, although such approaches are not without their critique.  For example, the assumption of static abilities further supporting a fixed mindset rather than the growth potential of what we want to be.

As a careers professional I certainly feel a duty to both learn more and also highlight some of the contentious ‘science’ underpinning learning styles and their potential use in careers work.

If learning styles, are The Biggest myth in education (video by Derek Muller, 14:26) then as a profession we have to make sure our practice is evidence based and defensible.  Often this starts by challenging the status quo and our own beliefs  or those held by others.

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BPS Research Digest (2021) The Learning Styles Myth is still prevalent among educators  – And it shows no sign of going away

Hooley (2020) Introduction to career theory – matching theories

Khazan (2018) The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

Newton & Salvi (2020) How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review.

Phil McCash (2006) We’re all career researchers now: breaking open career education and DOTS, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 34:4, 429-449, DOI: 10.1080/03069880600942558  

Muller (2021) The Biggest Myth In Education

Staunton (2015) Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset Theory – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

The Guardian Letters (2017) No evidence to back idea of learning styles