What Are Learning Styles?
The idea behind learning styles is that everyone has their own preferred method of learning and that by leaning into this preference, you can learn more effectively.
There are various theories to describe learning styles, each with its own categorizations; however, the most common is the VARK model. This theory describes four different learning styles: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic – hence the name VARK.
Based on the theory, visual learners learn best when information is presented in the form of diagrams, charts, graphs, and pictures. Auditory learners learn best when information is presented in the form of lectures or group discussions. Reading and writing learners learn best when information is presented in the form of textbooks, lecture notes, or articles. And kinesthetic learners learn best through experience – either through concrete personal experiences, examples, practice, or simulation.
Intuitively, this theory makes a lot of sense. It goes along with the deeply rooted belief that everyone is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people enjoy reading and writing. Others enjoy working with their hands. It would make sense then that by leaning into your natural preferences you would be able to learn more effectively; however, this isn’t the case.
According to research, there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that leaning into your preferred learning style will help you learn more effectively. So what gives?
The Problem with Learning Styles
To start, learning styles encourage students to take on an identity.
“I’m a visual learner and therefore I can only learn if information is presented in this way” or “I’m an auditory learner and I can only learn if information is presented in that way.”
Taking on an identity severely limits your potential and often leads to a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset.
When you believe that you can only learn information in one way, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you’re bad at learning through reading and writing, for instance, then you won’t put in the time or effort to become proficient at learning through reading and writing. Over time, if you only lean into your strengths, your weaknesses will become even more underdeveloped and your study techniques will become one-dimensional. This is a problem for three reasons.
First, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to learning. Depending on what you’re trying to learn and how you’ll be assessed on it, certain learning methods may be more or less effective.
Imagine trying to learn geometry without drawing figures or physics without using practice problems. Is it possible? Sure. But does it make things more difficult? Absolutely.
The reality is that some types of information are conveyed more effectively through one method over another. Instead of thinking about how we can match the presentation of the information to the individual, we should think about how to match the presentation to the information itself.
Next, we often learn best when we are exposed to the same information in multiple different ways. From neuroscience, we know that physical changes occur in the brain when we learn. New connections are made between neurons and the more connections that you make between pieces of information, the more likely you are to remember that information in the long term.
If you only take in information through one method, whether that be visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc., you’re missing the entire picture. This is why top students take in as much information about a topic as they can and use all of the methods available to them. We can see this best exemplified when we look at how medical students study.
In the United States, becoming a doctor is one of the most challenging academic endeavors that you can pursue. You might think that all people who become doctors are just naturally intelligent; however, there’s more to it than that. Although having above-average intelligence helps, success in medical school is much more a reflection of your work ethic and your study strategies – both of which can be honed.
There’s a lot of information to learn in medical school and not a lot of time to learn it. As such, medical students have to be incredibly efficient with their studying. If doing well were just a matter of leaning into their learning type, you would see most medical students employing only one type of studying; however, the literature shows that this is not the case.
Instead, the majority of fourth-year medical students, who have spent years honing their study strategies and efficiency in the pressure cooker that is medical school, use multimodal approaches to learning. This means that they use multiple methods when trying to learn new information.
Furthermore, all medical students – regardless of their learning style – tend to lean into kinesthetic learning styles during medical school. This makes sense as it matches how they’ll be asked to apply the information in the real world. Doctors have to physically treat patients, so it stands to reason that the best way to learn how to do that is through hands-on experience.
The last issue with learning styles is that they teach you to only lean into your preferences, which are easy, and to avoid learning strategies that feel hard. Effective learning isn’t supposed to feel easy. It’s actually the opposite. Effective learning should feel difficult and uncomfortable. This is the reason why active study strategies that challenge you to recall, analyze, and apply information are so effective.
You need to train your brain to work through difficult problems and deal with intense cognitive loads. Doing so increases the number and strength of neuronal connections and makes for more robust learning.
The world doesn’t bend or conform to you and what makes you comfortable. Instead, you have to be the one to adapt. The same concept applies to learning. Throughout your academic journey and beyond, you’ll be presented with information in multiple formats. It only benefits you to become proficient at all of them, instead of pigeonholing yourself into the belief that there’s only one optimal way for you to learn.
What You Should Do Instead
First, instead of matching the information to your learning style, match the learning style to the information you’re trying to learn. Identify the type of information and how you’ll be assessed on it and plan accordingly.
Additionally, instead of trapping yourself in the mindset that “I’m a visual learner, so I don’t do well with textbooks” or “I’m a kinesthetic learner, and I have to learn by doing”, you should be flexible and adopt a growth mindset. Tell yourself that you’re the type of student that can adapt and learn how to face the challenges ahead of you.
You don’t want to adopt an identity about what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. If you think you’re not good at learning through a particular method, you’ll never develop the skills necessary to improve and you will be bad at it.
As humans, we don’t like to feel like we’re contradicting ourselves. If you think you’re bad at a particular learning style, you’ll experience cognitive dissonance whenever you try to improve at it and you’ll be much more likely to get frustrated and quit.
Instead of telling yourself that you’re good or bad at something, identify as the type of student that is always improving. By adopting this sort of “growth mindset”, you’re less likely to get caught up in failures and more likely to learn from them.
This is what makes Med School Insiders different. Instead of focusing on simple tactics like other medical school admissions consultants, we focus on overlooked components and more advanced strategies to help you become the best student you can be.
Our team is made up of top-performing medical doctors – those who have been at the top of their class, earned full-tuition merit-based scholarships, and matched into competitive specialties at top programs. We know how to help you achieve stellar results because we’ve done it ourselves.
Learn more about our tutoring and admissions consulting services.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Why You’re Not a Straight-A Student (& How to Become One) or The Lazy Student’s Guide to Studying.