Random stuff from Patrick Crispen

Crispen on Learning Styles Theory

"I believe... I believe... It's silly, but I believe." -- Susan Walker, Miracle on 34th Street

Learning styles theory is the Santa Claus of the educational community.

Waller (1990) provided convincing -- and humorous -- evidence that even if Santa did once deliver presents on Christmas eve, the physics involved in such a feat would certainly have killed him. However, has Weller's research swayed the opinions of any true believer of Santa (the 'Santaists')? Of course not. In fact, the Santaists see Waller's article as further proof that their beliefs are correct, often reverting to questionable research -- see Davies and Slaughter (1989) -- to show that the Santaists are under attack by ill-informed outsiders.

In that same light, scores of articles and book chapters have been written over the past decade questioning the validity of learning styles theory (e.g., Stahl, 1999; Coffield, Mosley, Hall & Ecclestone, 2004; Dembo & Howard, 2007; Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008). Has this research swayed the opinions of any true believer of learning styles theory (the 'stylistas')? Of course not. Much like the Santaists before them, the stylistas see this contradictory research as a reason to cling even tighter to their discredited beliefs.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If believing in Santa Claus causes the Santaists to 'be good for goodness sake', where's the harm? In that same light, if believing in learning styles theory causes the stylistas to elicit their students' attention and to present new content using ellaborative teaching techniques, does it really matter if the theory they used to get to that point lacks internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity, and predictive validity?

Telling the stylistas that what they believe isn't true serves no purpose other than to be mean.


Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? Retrieved August 30, 2011, from http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/lluplus/docs/reports/LSRC_1540_final.pdf.

Davies, M., & Slaughter, M. (1989). In search of Scrodinger's reindeer. New Scientist. Retrieved August 30, 2011, from http://goo.gl/dB56G.

Dembo, M.H., & and Howard, K. (2007). Advice about the use of learning styles: A major myth in education. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 37(2), 101-109.

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

Stahl, S.A. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. American Educator, 2(3), 27-31.

Waller, R. (1990). Is there a santa claus? Spy Magazine. Retrieved August 30, 2011, from http://www.inthesetimes.com/ittlist/entry/11226/a_christmas_chestnut/.

Copyright © 2012 Patrick Crispen. Contents licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. All other rights reserved.