Visual Learning Styles Are Overemphasized in Education - Here’s What to Focus on Instead

Ginelle Testa

You've likely heard it countless times: 'I'm a visual learner,' or 'I'm teaching to visual learners.' It's a mantra that echoes through classrooms, study groups, and educational conferences worldwide. The idea that learning styles hold the key to unlocking academic and career success has the imaginations of both students and educators. 

In fact, 89% of educators believe that tailoring instruction to match learning styles is essential.

Some go even further, suggesting that these learning styles are as unchangeable as the very DNA we inherit at birth. They argue that each of us is hardwired with a dominant learning style, and attempting to deviate from it is as futile as trying to change the color of our eyes.

Amidst these widely held beliefs and firm convictions, a question emerges: Does research actually support these claims?

Debunking the Myth of Visual Learning Styles

While the concept of learning styles has unquestionably become a buzzword in education, it's imperative to confront a fundamental truth—this concept has faced a great deal of scrutiny and has been categorically debunked by the American Psychological Association

Under the spotlight of research, the notion that individuals are neatly categorized into distinct and unalterable learning styles, be it visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, begins to unravel.

To illustrate the magnitude of this misconception, consider the perspective of Daniel Willingham, a science educator. Willingham aptly points out a critical flaw in the learning styles narrative: "The (incorrect) twist that learning styles theories add is to suggest that everyone can reach the same cognitive goal via these different abilities."

Effective teaching and learning strategies should be based on sound pedagogical principles and the content being taught rather than trying to match instruction to perceived learning styles. It's essential to consider diverse teaching methods, engage students in active learning, and adapt instructional strategies to meet the specific needs of the material and the learners.

Why Are Beliefs in Learning Styles So Prevalent?

There’s no one certain answer, but it may be that it’d be easier if learning styles were truly an experience that students were having. In that case, just make sure the visual learners have videos. Make sure the auditory learners have podcasts. Make sure the tactile-kinaesthetic learners have interactive demonstrations. Then, instructors would have a recipe for success. It’s not so straightforward, though. 

It’s crucial that we confront these misconceptions head-on. The allure of the learning styles myth lies in its simplicity; it offers an enticing and straightforward solution to the complex challenge of education. However, the reality is far more complicated.

If not learning styles, then what? It’s important to still vary instruction.

Varying Instruction to Different Learners

In modern education, a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching no longer suffices. This section delves into diverse strategies for varying instruction to cater to individual learner needs and preferences.

Choice Boards

One approach gaining traction is the use of choice boards. Choice boards offer students a range of learning activities or assignments to choose from, allowing them to select the ones that align with their personal preferences or strengths.

Choice boards provide a means to cater to individual preferences without pigeonholing students into fixed learning styles. They empower learners to take ownership of their education and engage with materials in ways that resonate with them.

Here’s an example of a choice board using Labster’s virtual labs for Introduction to the Nervous System, one of the core topics taught in the first semester of Anatomy & Physiology

Formative Assessment

Employ formative assessments strategically throughout the learning process to gain insights into student comprehension and adapt instruction accordingly. These assessments can take various forms, including quizzes, polls, surveys, one-minute papers, or informal discussions. Tools like Kahoot, Socrative, or Mentimeter enable real-time interaction and engagement in the classroom. 

Formative assessment helps instructors identify areas where students may be struggling and is a powerful motivational tool. Immediate feedback and the opportunity for students to gauge their own understanding can boost their confidence, encourage active participation, and drive academic achievement. 

Additionally, formative assessment promotes metacognition, as students learn to monitor their own learning progress and make necessary adjustments.

Group Work

Organizing collaborative group activities fosters a dynamic learning environment where students can benefit from peer interaction and exposure to diverse perspectives. Group discussions, team projects, case studies, and problem-solving tasks encourage active participation and deeper engagement. 

Through group work, students can refine their communication skills, develop teamwork abilities, and gain valuable insights from their peers. This approach also mirrors real-world scenarios where individuals often collaborate with others to solve complex problems and make informed decisions. 

To ensure the effectiveness of group work, instructors can provide clear guidelines, facilitate discussions, and offer opportunities for reflection and peer evaluation to help students maximize the learning experience.

Incorporate Technology

Embracing educational technology can transform the learning experience by creating interactive and adaptive environments that cater to individual student needs. Leveraging tools and platforms like learning management systems (LMS), virtual reality simulations, online discussion boards, and adaptive learning software can enhance the flexibility and effectiveness of varied instruction. 

These technologies enable students to access resources at their own pace, receive personalized feedback, and engage in interactive learning experiences that accommodate different learning styles and preferences. Furthermore, technology can provide instructors with valuable data and insights into student progress, allowing for data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement in instructional design.

What’s the Importance of Varied Instruction?

Varied instruction is crucial in education. Here are some of the benefits: 

  • Enhances student engagement and motivation
  • Facilitates individualized learning experiences
  • Addresses varying levels of prior knowledge and skills
  • Promotes critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Offers flexibility in assessment methods
  • Prepares students for real-world adaptability
  • Increases retention and transfer of knowledge

Struggle to Implement Varied Instruction

Differentiated instruction has been a tool of K-12 educators for decades, but it hasn’t quite made its way into higher education. One HE study explored how “Those familiar with differentiated instruction cited lack of resources, training, and time as challenges for incorporating differentiated instructional strategies into large classes.” 

Solutions to Implement Varied Instruction

To effectively implement varied instruction in higher education, it's essential for faculty to participate in ongoing professional development training. These trainings are vital in equipping educators with a comprehensive set of tools and techniques tailored for differentiated instruction strategies, thereby enabling them to meet a wide spectrum of learning needs in their classrooms. 

Additionally, dedicating time at the end of each academic term for reflection and planning is critical. This period allows educators to evaluate the effectiveness of their instructional strategies, particularly in supporting underprepared or advanced students. Such reflective practices not only facilitate the fine-tuning of teaching methods but also contribute to the continuous improvement of educational delivery.


The fixation on visual learning styles lacks empirical support and should not be the sole basis for instructional design. Instead, educators should embrace varied instruction methods, such as choice boards, formative assessments, group work, and technology integration, to cater to diverse learning needs and enhance engagement. 

While challenges exist, particularly in higher education, this shift towards a more adaptable and inclusive approach is crucial for fostering effective learning and preparing students for real-world challenges. By moving beyond learning styles, we can create more engaged and successful learners in the evolving educational landscape.

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