Facts and fantasies about how students learn

March 3, 2015

What is the best way to learn content and skills in a new discipline? How much can we trust our intuitions about how we learn to guide decisions about how we should study new material?Students and instructors wrestle with these questions. Popular culture is rife with advice about how to study, but not all of all of this advice is well-grounded in evidence.

One common misconception about learning is that individuals have specific “learning styles” (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2009). An internet search will quickly produce web sites with questionnaires and diagnostic tests that claim to determine your optimal learning style, often categorized in terms of sensory modalities (visual learners, verbal learners, kinesthetic learners). These assessments depend on self-reported preferences to engage with material in one form or another (e.g., pictures, graphics, reading, listening, writing, manipulating objects, or movement). Students do prefer to engage in some learning activities more than others. However, their preferences may not coincide with activities work best as study strategies and create the largest benefit for learning. Pashler, McDaniel, Roher, and Bjork (2009) reviewed the research literature on learning styles and found little support for the common belief that instructional strategies work best when they align with a student’s “learning style.” They report that in many cases, students who use a “preferred learning style” learn less than students who use a non-preferred learning style.

If learning styles don’t predict effective teaching strategies, can we ignore student preferences for how we present information and just lecture? Although little evidence supports the value of matching presentation modality to learning preference, an extensive body of research supports the value of presenting information in a variety of modalities to improve retention and retrieval. Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010), Pashler, Bain, Bottge, Graesser, Koedinger, McDanier, and Metecalf (2007), and Winne & Nesbit (2010) review evidence-based strategies for effective teaching and learning. A selected list of their recommendations appears below.


Effective Learning Strategies

  • Present material in a variety of modalities: visual (pictures and graphics) and verbal (written and spoken).
  • Provide concrete examples as well as abstract explanations of concepts. Discuss the connection between characteristics of the concrete examples and key elements of the abstract representation.
  • Distribute learning activities over time. Repeated exposure and practice of new material with intervals of time (a few weeks) produces longer-term learning.
  • Interleave review of examples of solved problems with activities that require students to solve problems independently. As expertise and problem-solving skill increase, ask students to spend less time studying examples of solved problems and more time working independently to solve new problems.
  • Use quizzes and exams as opportunities to learn. Tests require students to practice retrieving information from memory. Students get feedback during the test and from their test scores about how well they encoded new material and appropriate retrieval cues. Ask students to reflect on how they prepared for an exam and consider whether using a different study strategy might improve future test performance. Post-exam reflections (so-called “exam wrappers”) help students calibrate their judgments about how well they have prepare and how much they have learned. These insights can guide their choices for future study activities.



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning (NCER 2007-2004). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ncer.ed.gov.

Winne, P. H., & Nesbit, J. C. (2010). The psychology of academic achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 653-678.

3/23/2015 cma