How Learning and Memory Myths Can Derail Your Progress

15.08.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Learning how to learn by Ace Eddleman


Perhaps the biggest problem for most people when learning something new is that they simply don’t have any idea how to do it correctly. Even worse, there are a number of “folk wisdom” learning methods and concepts that—despite feeling correct—are simply wrong.

Belief in these incorrect ideas can easily generate learning plateaus and even worse, discourage people from even starting a learning project. While the full scope of the problem could (and does) fill many books, we’re going to focus on just 1 incorrect concept today: learning styles.

Have you ever been asked about your “preferred learning style”? The typical answers are “audio,” “visual,” and “kinesthetic (touch),” although there are models with many other options, such as “logical.” The idea is that you can have information tailored specifically to how your individual brain processes information, which, in turn, implies that you’ll learn poorly if information is not formatted in a way that panders to your style.

Here’s the problem: Learning styles are completely bogus. They were proposed in the 1970s by researchers who wanted to find a way to optimize learning for individual students. There wasn’t any evidence to suggest they existed, but studies have been conducted ever since regardless—still without finding any evidence to support the hypothesis.

Unfortunately, the idea has spread like a virus into the world of education and is used regularly in a variety of domains. It just feels like such an intuitively correct idea, it’s difficult to kill off.

But I’m here to tell you that you must stop believing in this idea if you’re going to learn effectively.

For one, it will make you believe (incorrectly) that you are limited in terms of your ability to learn from a variety of formats. If you think you’re a visual learner, you’re more likely to focus exclusively on video content and ignore text-heavy books. If you think you need to touch things to learn, you’re less likely to engage with anything that isn’t physically in front of you.

To put the problem in blunter terms, belief in learning styles gives people a “get out of jail free” card for their lack of progress. Even worse, learning styles can provide you with an excuse for not doing anything at all simply because they don’t fit with your conception of what someone with your style would be capable of learning.

The good news is that you can overcome this problem fairly easily: stop believing in learning styles! While we all have individual differences in how our brains operate at the micro level (i.e. individual thought patterns, experiences, etc.), healthy brains function in essentially the same way at the macro level (all of us have thoughts generated by neurons contained in the same organs).

Your brain is incredibly adaptive and receptive to new information—no matter what format it comes in. We do have a bias towards visual information, but we’re capable of learning from any information medium we come across. If you think about it, not being able to learn from specific sensory channels would be a significant disadvantage for our ancestors out in the wild!

Don’t give yourself an unnecessary disadvantage; embrace the fact that you can learn from anything. If you’re struggling with a specific subject, it’s not because it doesn’t match your learning style.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about how relaxation can actually help you learn. See you then!


Recommended reading

Evidence-Based Higher Education—Is the Learning Styles “Myth” Important?


Recommended book

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham (the author is a cognitive scientist).


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