I’ve been thinking about writing this post about learning styles for a while now. It’s an area that I’m sure everyone in the training and learning industry has had contact with at some point. The idea of learning styles has been around for 40 years and I first came across them when completing my training and assessment qualification back in 2007. We discussed visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learners and also Kolb’s learning styles. To me it made sense that people would have a preference for the way in which they like receive information. It’s equally logical that if we matched instruction to learning styles, it would result in better learning.
This all changed when I came across a journal article that said this:
How could this be after all this time? I was surprised, so I investigated further. I found that at last count there were over 70, yes 70, different learning styles models. These have been used in schools, higher education, vocational education and the workplace to categorise people as a particular type of learner. The popularity of learning styles shows no signs of slowing down. It seemed that the more I looked for evidence that supports learning styles, the more I found that the research just doesn’t support the theory. On reflection, there was a definite lack of critical thinking on my part.
I can see the appeal of learning the style movement:
- It sounds logical so it’s easy to understand
- It’s easy to teach
- It’s been marketed and sold very well
I like Steve Wheeler’s description of the learning styles myth as a convenient untruth.
What I also find troubling is that in Australia, the minimum qualification for trainers and assessors and many learning and development professionals is the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. Units within this qualification still refer to having knowledge of learning styles. This means that subsequent generations of learning practitioners are learning about something that has no evidence to back it up.
Given that learning styles isn’t helpful, we should as Jane Bozarth wrote, unlearn it. While it may be harder than learning, learning styles is something we need to unlearn. Yes, learners have different characteristics but we need to focus on evidence-based methods of instruction. Take Will Thalheimer’s Decisive Dozen as an example. These 12 factors are based a synthesis of years of research undertaken in learning and instruction.
We shouldn’t focus on things that sound logical or are popular or are just accepted. If we want to be taken seriously as learning professionals we need to use theories, methods and techniques that are grounded in research and actually get results.
Riener, C & Daniel Willingham, D. (2010): The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42 (5), 32-35.
Rohrer, D, and Pashler H. (2012) Learning styles: where’s the evidence. Medical Education, 46. 630-635.
Scott, C. (2010) The enduring appeal of ‘learning styles’ Australian Journal of Education, 54 (1), 5-17.
Vorhaus, J. (2010) Learning styles in vocational education and training. Vocational Education and Training – Teaching and Learning, 376-382.