The ghost of learning styles and why its needs to be exorcised

    I was recently invited to attend a presentation on their academic extension program at my child’s school. To my surprise, included during the evening was the explanation of learning styles. It was interesting to hear the speaker talk about how students have different learning styles and how teachers can cater to these styles to improve their academic performance. However, I couldn’t help but wonder they addressed learning styles instead of cognitive load.

    The concept of learning styles has been around for quite some time. In the 1970s, psychologist Walter Burke Barbe introduced the idea that individuals have different preferences for how they learn, and that tailoring instruction to these preferences can enhance learning outcomes. Since then, the idea has gained popularity and has been widely accepted in the education field.

    On the other hand, the concept of cognitive load was introduced by John Sweller in the 1980s. Sweller argued that our working memory is limited, and when we overload it with too much information, we become less efficient at processing and retaining that information. He proposed that educators should consider the cognitive load of their instruction and adjust it accordingly to optimize learning.

    Despite the research supporting cognitive load theory, some teachers still defer to learning styles as an important aspect of teaching. This may be due to the fact that the idea of learning styles is intuitive and easy to understand. It’s easy to see that some students prefer to learn through visual aids, while others prefer to learn through hands-on activities. However, cognitive load theory may be a bit more complex and requires teachers to have a deeper understanding of how our brains process information.

    The problem with learning styles is that it has been proven to be incorrect. In a 2009 review of the literature, Pashler et al. concluded that there is little to no empirical evidence supporting the notion that tailoring instruction to learning styles improves learning outcomes. In fact, the authors found that matching instruction to learning styles may even be detrimental to learning outcomes.

    On the other hand, there is a wealth of research supporting the effectiveness of cognitive load theory. A study by Kirschner et al. (2006) found that when learners were given instructions that minimized cognitive load, they performed better on a subsequent task than those who were given instructions that were not optimized for cognitive load.

    So why should teachers be talking about cognitive load instead of learning styles? The answer is simple: cognitive load theory is supported by empirical evidence and has been shown to be an effective way to improve learning outcomes. By understanding how our working memory works and how to optimize instruction to minimize cognitive load, teachers can help their students learn more effectively.

    In addition, it’s important to note that focusing on learning styles may lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. If a teacher believes that a student is a visual learner, for example, they may focus too heavily on visual aids and neglect other methods of instruction that may be more effective for that particular student.

    As an experienced teacher, I believe that it’s important for educators to focus on cognitive load theory rather than learning styles. While the concept of learning styles may be intuitive and easy to understand, it has been proven to be incorrect and may lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. On the other hand, cognitive load theory has been shown to be effective in improving learning outcomes and should be a key consideration for teachers when planning and delivering instruction.


    Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

    Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer