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  • Writer's pictureBethany Huebner

What Learning Styles Really Mean

clinician to educator
What is your learning style?

I remember in the month before I started residency, I received a start-up checklist. This was the list I was to complete prior to my first day. On the list was instructions to take the VARK questionnaire. The VARK is a like a personality test, but only for learning styles. Prior to taking this questionnaire, I had never really thought about my learning style. I would have characterized myself style as a “flash card writing fool.”

clinician to educator
All of my flash cards from PT school

The VARK categorizes you into either a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing, or multi-modal learner. Knowing this information is supposed to allow you to cater your learning and studying to your style which will maximize your retention and knowledge gained. Supposed to.

Fast forward 8 years and I am now in charge of revamping the first DPT course our students take. The course's name is Clinical and Professional Issues I: An Introduction. The title couldn’t be any more vague, but it is a course that introduces our students to graduate school and the profession of physical therapy. Over the first few years of teaching, we were seeing more and more students struggle in the first year of the program and we attributed it to the poor study strategies that followed our students from their undergraduate programs. This realization took me back to residency and the VARK questionnaire. It was so enlightening to me to find out I was primarily a reading/writing learning with kinesthetic being a close second, I immediately thought this would be a great idea to incorporate into this first course. I developed a lecture on the VARK and all the different types of learners. I asked the students to take the questionnaire and then even had them turn in a written reflection in regard to their learning style and how they planned on incorporating that knowledge moving forward in their study strategies.

This was a problem that I thought I had found the perfect solution for…boy was I wrong.

This past week’s reading in one of my PhD classes provided the evidence I should have searched for prior to implementing learning styles into my class. The article was titled, “The Myth of Learning Styles” and was written by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham. The article was published in Change Magazine in 2010. 2010….yes, I was asking my students to perform and utilize a theory that had be debunked 6 years prior to my course. As I read the article, I just felt a pit in my stomach. I had fallen into the trap of not using the evidence to guide my practice. As a clinician, I would consult the evidence on a regular basis to find what the best intervention or diagnostic test I should be using for particular patients. As a new educator, I never consulted the evidence on best practice for students learning. I don’t have a good reason why, but my only excuse is I was naïve. As a new clinician and/or educator, you don’t know what you don’t know. As an experienced professional, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. I didn’t know that evidence-based practice could be applied to my teaching practice as well as my clinical practice. This article was just the eye opener I needed.

There is NO evidence that learning styles actually provide any benefit to learning or retention in students (see references below for proof). Unlike our beloved Treatment Based Classification for Acute Low Back pain where we can categorize a patient and then match them with an intervention, tailoring instruction to student’s learning styles does NOT equal increased learning or retention, yet. The VARK (and other learning style questionnaires like it) is just a questionnaire that identifies your learning preferences. All of the questions ask the respondent what they “prefer” in certain situations. Our choice as learners is to not be uncomfortable, right? So, we answer these questions with our preference in mind. The respondent’s answers can also vary depending on the context of what is being learned. If your learning style is primarily reading/writing, would you learn how to perform a dance better by reading the instructions or by watching a video or by practicing the steps with an instructor? Theoretically if the rule held truth, reading the instructions should produce the best outcome…I would argue that I don’t believe that to be the case.

So, if learning styles have been debunked, what are we as educators to do? How am I going to update my course this summer to provide the best advice for our student’s learning? I plan on answering these questions next week as I dive into the evidence to find the answer.

How do you optimize learning in your classroom or in the boardroom? What ways have you identified that your audience learns better?


Pashler H, Mc Daniel M, Rohrer D, Bjork R. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Association for Psychological Science. 2009;9(3):105-119. Cedar Riener And. The myth of learning styles. Change Magazine. September/October 2010:33-35. Rohrer D, Pashler H. Learning styles: where’s the evidence? Med Educ. 2012;46(7):634-635. The Great Courses. IEEE Spectrum. 2013;50(3):37-37.

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