Facts and Fantasies about How Students Learn

Posted August 11, 2015

By Claudia Stanny

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 that work best as study strategies and create the largest benefit for learning. Empirical research on learning styles rarely supports popular beliefs that instructional strategies are most effective when they align with a student’s “learning style” (Pashler, McDaniel, Roher, & Bjork, 2009). Instead, Pashler et al. identified multiple research examples in which students used a “preferred learning style” and learned less than students who used a non-preferred, but cognitively effective, learning style.

If matching student learning preferences is not the answer, then what are our best strategies for presenting information? [Image: Earlham College]

If learning styles don’t predict which teaching strategies will be most effective for learning, can we ignore student preferences and just lecture? Although research evidence does not support 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 (see Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010), Pashler, Bain, Bottge, Graesser, Koedinger, McDanier, and Metecalf (2007), and Winne & Nesbit (2010) for reviews of evidence-based strategies for effective teaching and learning). A selected list of their recommendations appears below.

Effective Learning Strategies

1. Present material in a variety of modalities: visual (pictures and graphics) and verbal (written and spoken).

2. 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.

3. Distribute learning activities over time. Repeated exposure and practice of new material with intervals of time (a few weeks) produces longer-term learning.

4. 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.

5. 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.


Claudia J. Stanny is the Director of the Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment and an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of West Florida. She offers workshops on teaching strategies, faculty career development, scholarship of teaching and learning, and assessment of student learning. Her publications discuss assessment in higher education, applied aspects of memory and cognition, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

A version of this post first appeared on the University of West Florida’s Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment website. You can find it and other great teaching tips posts by Claudia Stanny by visiting - http://uwf.edu/offices/cutla/