Martial Arts and the Myth of Learning Styles

When last year I read of a study that debunked key popular beliefs about “learning styles,” I thought, “Yes! I knew it!”

These beliefs were, and no doubt still are, very widely and deeply held: that there are distinct styles, or modalities, of learning (visual, auditory/verbal, tactile/kinesthetic); that individuals have preferred learning styles; that they learn and perform better when they are working in their preferred style.

The study found no evidence to support the claim that a student’s preferred learning style yielded better learning or performance; found some solid evidence that it did not; and found some evidence that better learning and performance could be correlated with engaging the style most closely matched to the material being learned.

“Basic research on human learning and memory, especially research on human metacognition … has demonstrated that our intuitions and beliefs about how we learn are often wrong in serious ways.”
— Harold Pashler et al, in “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence”

That point about matching the learning style to the material being taught – it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Certainly to a martial arts instructor—someone teaching a physical/kinesthetic skill, where there is never going to be a substitute for kinesthetic instruction and practice. There may be more than one way to present material (and a good instructor will use many different ways), but where physical arts are concerned, it’s always going to come down to sustained focus on physical practice.

Learning-styles theory has occasionally entered the dojo in the form of a student or parent asserting he or she favors a particular learning style, therefore the instructor is going to have to accommodate that style. As a traditionalist, I look askance at students coming to the dojo telling the instructor what he or she is going to have to do. However, these students/parents are not acting out of arrogance or malice; they deserve our courtesy, and in most cases one can simply nod and smile. Tactile/kinesthetic learner? You’re in luck! Visual learner? Welcome to an art where watching others demonstrate is a key part of the process.

Auditory/verbal learner? Yes, we do use words, descriptions, explanations and sounds here. It’s part of the whole mosaic of skills and approaches we use in martial arts, where you are going to have a chance to improve all your modalities – and work to stretch your boundaries, rather than clinging to them.

But, verbal learner, if you mean (as some do, it turns out) that you must constantly speak, repeat, restate, ask, question, argue and generally narrate your way aloud through class, it’s going to be a problem. It’s something you’re going to have to learn to control and overcome. It is contrary to fundamental etiquette – and for good reason: It disrupts your classmates practice. It disrupts your own practice (these self-declared “verbal learners” will repeatedly interrupt themselves in the midst of physical skills they were performing just fine, never letting themselves complete a single drill!). And it runs counter to one of the most important goals of our practice, which is to train the body to move instinctively when under dire threat, free from the slowing intervention of verbal/discursive thought.

Years of experience have led me to believe that these talkers don’t exemplify a learning style so much as a coping mechanism: They are expressing the discomfort everyone feels when they lack confidence in learning new things. As instructors, we owe them some compassion and help, just as we should have compassion for physically awkward students struggling to learn graceful moves, or shy students struggling to step up and be loud. But all these students must be pushed to work it through and overcome.

If there’s one thing every martial arts instructor sees time and again, it’s that people are far more capable than they themselves believe. Think how many students come in stating that they can only do this, won’t be able to do that, won’t be any good at sparring, will never be strong enough to really defend themselves. We know how wrong they are; and again, often they’re just expressing fear or discomfort, trying to take some control over an uncertain venture. We don’t give up guiding and pushing our students toward the things they resist, because we know they can exceed their self-imposed limits. Just as we push them to overcome the weak areas in their physical skills, we can push them to overcome their (perceived) learning-styles limitations. Everyone benefits from being pushed in every direction and modality, including (perhaps especially) in those modalities where they most struggle. Seeing this again and again is why I was not surprised to read that the theory of learning-style preferences doesn’t hold up.

Let’s look again at what’s being said about learning styles.

It’s not that they don’t exist (although some do argue that position). At a minimum, they exist as concepts that facilitate talk about teaching and learning. They’re as real, in this case, as the sensory modalities through which people take in information. And if an instructor uses these concepts to be more creative about teaching, to come up with new ideas and drills, to engage students in new and different ways – that’s great! That’s what good teaching is all about.

It’s not that people don’t have preferences about how they learn. I’d guess that most people will express a preference, if given some means to choose. But that preference has little or no bearing on how well they will learn, which is our proper concern as teachers. Their preference is only a self-perceived measure of comfort; and comfort – while it can certainly be considered – has never been a top priority in martial arts training. On the contrary, we should expect to be pushing students through discomfort much of the time. In any case, the last thing good instructors should do is limit what they present to a student, based on a preconceived construct or stereotype. Instead, we must push our students in every way, and pay special attention to what actually works.

If you’re interested in further reading, here are some links:

A general/popular article from the Washington Post;

A blog post that talks about the issues and includes other links;

And the original study.


6 Responses to “Martial Arts and the Myth of Learning Styles”

  1. serpentstaff Says:

    Phew! Feels good to finally have a new post up. And I’m going to have to stop going back in and tweaking the prose now.

  2. What the student should do is to “empty his cup” and learn what the teacher has to teach. It’s the first test, actually. If you can’t learn to empty your cup, you probably won’t achieve very much.

  3. I believe that you cannot try and fit every student into one mold (actually had this conversation today). As a teacher you teach the truths behind the techniques or whatever it is your are teaching but then you need to help students find it and apply it for themselves. Once they are capable of this the learning has begun.

  4. I believe that the reporting on that study was sensational and inaccurate. It was titled: “Learning Styles Debunked” but that’s not what the study did or attempted to do.

    The study, which was very well done, pointed out that they had failed to prove that learning styles work. They had simply tested students for learning styles and then tested some kids in their preferred learning style, others in styles that were not their strong suit. The result did not show that the kids whose learning style was catered to, did better. That’s all.

    It hardly debunked the idea. It just failed to show that the proof that they are effective approaches could not easily be shown.

  5. serpentstaff Says:

    Was reminded of this old discussion when I saw this link today:

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