Learning styles: fact or myth?

Having worked now for several years in the field of learning and development in the corporate world, I’m used to seeing psychological concepts being used and abused, distorted or just over-simplifed. Most of the times it happens with theories that are intuitively appealing, but have now been proven incorrect, or with findings that have been taken out of context to create a best selling book on a certain business topic.

One of the things I do as part of my job is to develop and deliver content that other trainers will use with their learners. This means that a great deal of care goes into justifying the methods I choose to deliver the content. For example, I will tell the trainers why I chose to use a role-play activity to explain a certain subject instead of presenting a diagram or a video. And every so often comes the discussion around “learning styles” – which I came to realise many trainers assume is a tested and proven psychological theory.

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The term “learning styles” is used to describe the idea that individuals differ with respect to what form of instruction or study method is most effective for them. Advocates of the learning styles theory support that optimal instruction requires identifying individuals’ learning style (typically through a questionnaire) and customising the instruction method accordingly. Despite being a very attractive idea that resonates with our intuition, research does not support that we learn better if instructed in our preferred learning style (e.g., Kirschner, 2017; Pashler, 2008; Simmonds, 2014)

In 1987, Neil Fleming created a questionnaire designed to help people learn more about their individual learning preferences. In this model, commonly known as VARK learning styles, learners are categorised by whether they have a preference for Visual learning (e.g., flowcharts, graphs, drawings), Auditory learning (e.g., radio, group discussions, lectures), Reading and writing (lists, books, taking notes), or Kinesthetic learning (simulations, hands-on activities, case studies). Although there are many models – including the Dunn and Dunn learning-styles model, the Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, the Honey and Mum-Ford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire, or the Jungian Learning Styles – the VARK model is currently one of the most popular.

Researchers Polly R. Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin, at Indiana University School of Medicine, asked 426 undergraduate anatomy students to fill-in an online VARK questionnaire and a study strategies survey. They analysed wether there was any correlation between their grade performance in anatomy, their preferred learning style and their study strategies outside of class. Their findings, published in recent paper, spell once again bad news for the advocates of learning styles: not only a majority of students did not report study strategies that correlated with their VARK scores, but for those who actually studied in accordance with the modality indicated by their VARK scores, their performance in anatomy was not any better. The researchers conclude that their study provides further evidence that the conventional wisdom about learning styles should be rejected by educator and students alike.

While “learning styles” might not give answers on how to successful train and learn, there are many simple, yet effective, empirically tested techniques that can support trainers and students. For example, instructors can interleave the information to ensure topics appear more than once and in different contexts, provide specific examples to make the content practical and relevant, and use dual coding to provide students two ways of recalling information later on. Learners, on the other hand, can help themselves by spacing their study over time, taking test and quizzes to help retrieve information from memory and making the effort to elaborating on the concepts they are learning.

I’m sure this is not the end of “learning styles”: the theory is intuitive, helps explain failure to learn without blaming the learner for not putting the work, and matches our expectation of being treated as individuals when we are being educated. This said, professionals in the learning and development industry have an obligation to research the psychological concepts they plan to use. Otherwise they will be perpetuating myths and, importantly, they will miss their goal of improving people’s performance.

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