“65 percent of people are visual learners” is lazy journalism

Research and statistics to give credibility to your work is excellent practice. But not when it’s poorly researched and based on… well not much!

Whilst scanning Twitter this evening, I saw this interesting tweet and took a look at the article:

Author Joanna Lu writes in the article, “you’ve likely heard before that 65 percent of people are visual learners”. Yes I have, and I know that, as a sweeping statement, it’s untrue. Intrigued by this, and that it had a hyperlink, I thought I’d follow Joanna Lu’s research and see where she got that statement from.

I can trust a Forbes article, right?

The link goes to a Forbes article, Why Infographics Rule, buy TJ McCue. In the opening paragraph TJ McCue states the same statistic and says its from the Social Science Research Network. A quick Google (and following a link mentioned later on, which cites the same statistic and links direct to the SSRN) finds an article called Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art.

So far there’s websites quoting other websites. What they are referring to is something in The Law Teacher by William C. Bradford. You can download the PDF and read it, largely about using paintings in teaching and Bradford’s findings with a small group he taught.

In the opening of the document you’ll read this:

Learning theorists have demonstrated that people vary in the manner in which they absorb, process, and recall what they are taught. Verbal learners, a group that constitutes about 30% of the general population, learn by hearing. They benefit from class lectures and from discussion of class materials in study groups or in oral presentations, but chafe at written assignments. Experiential learners—about 5% of the population—learn by doing and touching,and clinical work, role-playing exercises, and moot court are their best instructional modalities.
Visual learners—the remaining 65% of the population—need to see what they are learning, and while they have difficulty following oral lectures they perform well at written assignments and readily recall material they have read.

The trouble is, that William C. Bradford doesn’t cite any of his findings or the research he got it from. There’s no reference or quoted work here at all. And other authors are using this document to based their own work from! I’m astounded.

The SSRN website call this a “paper” which lends credibility to this poorly researched and untrue document.

Google that “65 percent of people are visual learners” stat!

More Googling on the 65% statistic, apart from lots of mentions of it with no backup, shows up one interesting article on Seyens.com, who claim that they “help researchers in academia and industry visually communicate ideas and results”. You can judge on how well they do that now.

In an article by Seyens editor Tea Romih, Humans are Visual Creatures, you’ll read this:

At least 65% of people are “visual learners”.
This estimation comes from a research study on engineering students by Dr. Richard Felder in the 1980s, which later became a foundation for a standardized test called the Index of Learning Styles (ILS).

Despite the lack of a link to the paper being referenced, I found it and read it. LEARNING AND TEACHING STYLES IN ENGINEERING EDUCATION by Richard Felder and Linda Silverman. In the paper, I couldn’t find anywhere it stated the 65% statistic or anything that would make me think that.

What’s more, this is part of what Richard Felder wrote as a pre-face on the paper in 2002:

A problem is that in recent years I have found reasons to make two significant changes in the model: dropping the inductive/deductive dimension, and changing the visual/auditory category to visual/verbal. (I will shortly explain both modifications.)
When I set up my web site, I deliberately left the 1988 paper out of it, preferring that readers consult more recent articles on the subject that better reflected my current thinking. Since the paper seems to have acquired a life of its own, however, I decided to add it to the web site with this preface included to explain the changes.

My favourite part is “preferring that readers consult more recent articles on the subject that better reflected my current thinking“.

Is that “65 percent of people are visual learners” finally debunked now?

How about any of those writers above, and many, many more besides, consult anything up to date with decent research on learning styles?

Perhaps those authors should instead consult my growing curation of articles and research that are debunking the learning style.

This blog post was based on one claim in that Hootsuite article. The rest of the sentence I quoted was “and 90 percent of the information we absorb is visual”. I think I’ll leave that one for another day…


January 2020 update

I’ve just seen this web advert for Visme, which just makes me sad that they are jumping on the bandwagon.


Visme using a debunked stat

6 thoughts on ““65 percent of people are visual learners” is lazy journalism

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  1. Superb piece of work Jo. Surely anyone writing the sentence “Experiential learners—about 5% of the population—learn by doing and touching……..’ would read that and think “Hmm, there is something wrong there.”

  2. Thanks for writing this. As a writer, I am getting highly frustrated at being led in circles by these nonsensical statistics online, which anyone can debunk in two minutes (in the case of the “paper” you mention: 65 percent of what population? The study? The country the “researcher” is located in? The planet?)

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