Over the past two decades the science of the brain, neuroscience, has accumulated much information about how the brain works, information that should be of value to teachers; however, the findings of neuroscience are complex and therefore are easy to misunderstand.
Researchers in the field of educational neuroscience have found that classroom practice that is supposed to be built upon the neuroscience ("brain research") is often based instead on neuromyths: beliefs about how the brain works only loosely supported by neuroscience.
In a 2012 study, 242 primary and secondary teachers from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom who self-identified as being very interested in educational neuroscience were asked to either agree or disagree with a series of 32 statements some true, some neuromyths about the brain and learning. (You can find the complete list of statements at the end of this article.)
Of the fifteen neuromyths that were presented in the survey, the teachers identified nearly half of them as being true. The fact that even presumably well-informed teachers performed about as well as if they had just guessed highlights the difficulty faced by neuroscientists who attempt to accurately convey information to interested education professionals. (Dekker et al., 2012)
The 2012 survey was used as the basis for a more ambitious survey of American teachers developed by Dr. Kelly MacDonald and her colleagues at the Neuroscience Development Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The survey gathered information about participants' background, their general knowledge and their responses to the same list of 32 statements (edited for an American-English-speaking audience) from the 2012 survey.
To increase the numbers who took the survey, professor MacDonald and her colleagues advertised for participants through professional and university listservs and social networks. In addition each participant was asked to share the survey link with an educator colleague. All participants gave written informed consent and the study met the American University's approved research protocol. The survey was conducted through the citizen science website TestMyBrain.org, a website that enables members of the public to participate in research studies like MacDonald's. Some 3,800 responses were used in the analysis.
The two most popular neuromyths among the teachers completing the survey were the belief that "individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic)." This neuromyth was endorsed by 93 percent of the general public and 76 percent of teachers.
Both groups also believed in the related (and also false) assertion that "children have learning styles dominated by particular senses (i.e., seeing, hearing, touch)" with 88 percent of the general public agreeing and 71 percent of teachers in agreement. (MacDonald, et.al. 2017)
Although identified by neuroscience as a myth, "learning styles" has a large following among educators, both in K-12 and higher education.
Implementation of the learning styles has three parts: discover the student's preferred way to learn material; once that style has been identified (using any of the 71 different assessment tools from VAUX (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) to Myers-Briggs and beyond), the teacher can create an appropriate learning styles friendly instructional environment. (MacDonald et al., 2017)
One of the reasons for the durability of the learning styles neuromyth--it has been around for nearly half a century--is the fact that students do in fact differ from one another and do have different ways they go about learning new content. Some prefer diagrams while others like to listen carefully to their teachers' explanations. But students differ in other ways as well and these may have more impact on student learning than the learning strategies that students use: different amounts of background knowledge about math or science; personal interests; a preference for literature or math; how able they are in mastering individual subjects.
Despite its wide acceptance among members of the profession, the fact is that forty years of research has failed to find support for learning styles. (May, 2018)
Whether students are able to use their preferred learning style to select study strategies or one that is not, the learning outcomes are the same. In addition, students are practical and therefore match their study strategies to the content they are to master, no matter what their "preferred style."
In studies such as one cited by College of Charleston psychology professor Dr. Cindi May, it was found that 70 percent of the students did not actually use study techniques that supported the students' self-identified learning preferences. Most visual learners did not rely heavily on visual strategies...nor did most reading/writing predominantly rely on reading strategies." In the third of students who did use their preferred learning style, their performance did not differ from that of the students who didn't use their learning style. (May, 2018)
As May summarizes the issue most students do not employ "study strategies that mesh with self-reported learning preferences, and the minority who do show no academic benefit..." (May, 2018)
May concluded that students are not aware of the processes and behaviors that support effective learning, and that they often use study methods that are negatively correlated with classroom performance such as flash cards and googled websites.
May's solution is simple. Since time spent on learning styles is unproductive, teachers should use the time they would have devoted to assessing learning styles to introduce their students to what cognitive science has revealed about how best to acquire new knowledge: spaced study sessions, the use of multiple modalities to experience material, testing themselves on the material, and making meaningful connections between the course content and real life.
Dekker, Sanne, Nikki C. Lee, et. Al. Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology 2012 Oct. 18.
May, Cindi. (2018). The Problem with “Learning Styles.” Scientific American. May 28, 2018.
Macdonald, Kelly; Germaine, Laura; Anderson, Alina; Christodolus, Johanna and McGrath, Lauren M. (2017) Dispelling the Myth: Training in Education or Neuroscience Decreases but Does Not Eliminate Beliefs in Neuromyths. Frontiers In Psychology (10 August 2017)
List of questions presented to the subjects of the two studies.
1. We use our brains 24 h a day (C).
2. Children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned. If they do not do so neither language will be fully acquired (I).
3. Boys have bigger brains than girls (C).
4. If pupils do not drink sufficient amounts of water (=6–8 glasses a day) their brains shrink (I).
5. It has been scientifically proven that fatty acid supplements (omega-3 and omega-6) have a positive effect on academic achievement (I).
6. When a brain region is damaged other parts of the brain can take up its function (C).
7. We only use 10% of our brain (I).
8. The left and right hemisphere of the brain always work together (C).
9. Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners (I).
10. The brains of boys and girls develop at the same rate (I).
11. Brain development has finished by the time children reach secondary school (I).
12. There are critical periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned (I).
13. Information is stored in the brain in a network of cells distributed throughout the brain.
14. Learning is not due to the addition of new cells to the brain (C).
15. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic) (I).
16. Learning occurs through modification of the brains’ neural connections (C).
17. Academic achievement can be affected by skipping breakfast (C).
18. Normal development of the human brain involves the birth and death of brain cells (C).
19. Mental capacity is hereditary and cannot be changed by the environment or experience (I).
20. Vigorous exercise can improve mental function (C).
21. Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school children (I).
22. Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks (I).
23. Circadian rhythms (“body-clock”) shift during adolescence, causing pupils to be tired during the first lessons of the school day (C).
24. Regular drinking of caffeinated drinks reduces alertness (C).
25. Exercises that rehearse co-ordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skills (I).
26. Extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brain (C).
27. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) (C).
28. Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education (I).
29. Production of new connections in the brain can continue into old age (C).
30. Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function (I).
31. There are sensitive periods in childhood when it’s easier to learn things (C).
32. When we sleep, the brain shuts down (I).
Neuromyth assertions are presented in italic; C = correct; I = incorrect.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.