Learning styles have received a lot of attention over the years, with many educators spending countless hours assisting students with determining whether they were auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners. However, the lack of research support for the validity of learning styles has led many to question the appropriateness of teaching students about learning styles (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008; Rohrer & Pashler, 2012; Krätzig, & Arbuthnott, 2006).

Neuroscience research has actually shown us that we are more similar versus different in terms of how we learn best. We will be most productive and learn the most when we are using multiple senses (Willingham, 2009; Goswami, 2008). In other words, memory is improved when we see, hear, and do something with the information. This multi-sensory approach is beneficial because students are engaging different neural pathways at the same time, strengthening learning and memory.

While using all senses is the best approach, visual images appear to be particularly powerful in the learning process. Based on numerous experimental studies, Mayer (2008) found that adding an image to text resulted in significantly better memory for the concept. Other researchers have found that we are able to process pictures more quickly and efficiently than words (Seifert, 1997) and our memory for pictures is better than it is words (Foos & Goolkasian, 2008). This phenomenon is referred to as the picture superiority effect and is connected to the encoding and retrieval processes (McBride & Dosher, 2002).

What can you do with this information?

The attention on learning styles was helpful to some extent because it encouraged educators to consider multiple senses when preparing lessons. Pashler et al. (2008) found that what mattered most was whether the teachers taught using a sensory approach that matched the content.  If you are teaching students about how to use lab equipment, a hands-on experience will likely work best. If, on the other hand, you are teaching students a class on music appreciation, listening or auditory exposure will be most important. Think about the content you are teaching and then determine the best delivery method.

There is no need to teach students about learning styles—it is not productive for students to walk away from a lesson believing they need to take in information via a preferred style in order to learn. Given the importance of images, consider how images could enhance learning.  For example, when creating your PowerPoint slides, use meaningful graphs, charts, and images that connect to the content you are teaching.

Rather than focusing on learning styles, emphasize study skills. There are many research-based strategies such as practice retrieval and organization that will significantly increase learning (Karpicke & Roediger, 2006; Dickinson & O’Connell, 1990).  For research-based study strategies, request an instructor copy of Student Success in College: Doing What Works!

Note: Much of the above content will appear in the forthcoming Second Edition of Student Success in College: Doing What Works!, which will be available in January 2015.

Dr. Christine Harrington is a Professor of Psychology and Student Success and Director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ. She is also the author of a new research-based freshman seminar textbook, Student Success in College: Doing What Works! Prior to teaching full time, she worked in the Counseling and Career Services Department, providing disability services and career, academic, and personal counseling. You can also visit Dr. Christine Harrington’s website.

Do you use a multi-sensory approach to teaching? What are your strategies? Share them in the comments below.