Science and Uncertainty

A recent news story reported that the pop notion of different learning styles lacks proof.

Fascinating that an idea we take for granted—that some folks are visual learners and some physical learners—has yet to gain empirical traction.

The NPR story quotes researchers who reviewed the scientific literature and found no evidence to support the theory that folks learn differently.

That’s not to say we don’t: but how do we put our faith in this belief without evidence? It’s a leap of faith.

The story points to the tangling of myths, beliefs and data.

Our beliefs are powerful and I drank the Kool-Aid of different learning styles even though I never read the scientific literature. Why? Because it seems that students do indeed learn, well, differently.

This is a great example of believing in something because it resonates with our values; that people are individuals with subjective differences. But some scientists argue that it’s more reasonable to think of the similarities we all share that have helped us adapt to our environments, such as the way our hearts beat.

Our hearts are similar.

Are our learning styles?

Maybe. It’s a hunch.

It was a hunch, peppered with fear, that led to a study that linked childhood vaccines with autism. Turns out the evidence was false. Yet some folks cling to the belief that vaccines cause autism even though no scientific studies have yet demonstrated a connection.

When I teach research methods we struggle over how we know what we know and what informs our beliefs. Sometimes it’s important to examine the end result.

For example, if I’m taking medicine to curb an infection, I defer to the scientific evidence. My preference: make a decision about medication based on clinic trials. The end result directs me to put my faith in science.

That’s not to say science is definitive: there are plenty of uncertainties. Last time I read the scientific studies about medicine for depression the evidence is inconclusive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

So tailoring lesson plans to different learning styles may not help. But there is plentiful evidence that spending one-on-one time with a student can do a world of good.

More than 80 years ago researchers in Chicago looked at work habits to try and figure out what made folks more productive. In one study they changed the lighting to see how brighter lights affected workers.

Initially the researchers found that more illumination affected productivity. But they later discovered that by paying attention to workers in conducting the study that productivity increased. In other words, the very act of studying workers made a difference.

Today we call the phenomenon the Hawthorne Effect, named for the factory where the study took place.

For the story on learning styles see


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in journalism, Native Science, news bias, science, science communication and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science and Uncertainty

  1. .The empirical evidence underlying learning styles tests and theories has been severely criticized in recent years. Although children and adults will often express personal preferences a recent review commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science was unable to uncover any evidence that tailoring instruction to these preferences actually produces any better learning outcomes see discussion of The 2009 APS Critique below .


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