Letting go of Learning Styles

10 Nov

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:

LS Quote

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.

Yoda quote

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.


Posted by on November 10, 2013 in Theories


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

27 responses to “Letting go of Learning Styles

  1. tanyalau

    November 10, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Nice – simple and clearly articulated argument! interesting about the Cert IV – I didn’t know that (not having one myself). Explains why so many trainers and curriculum writers refers to it…!
    I guess the other thing is – particularly as a designer – how do you even establish what a person’s supposed ‘learning style’ is? Other than perhaps by direct report, which is both unreliable (as self reports often are) and impractical (what, are you going to survey an entire audience on their ‘learning style’? And then, what – cater to the majority? what about the rest?)….

    • learningsnippets

      November 10, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      Hey Tanya!
      I recently went through the upgrade process for my Cert IV and learning styles are still there!That’s when I went digging into the individual units and found the references in required knowledge in some of them.
      You are spot on, the task in determining the learning styles for our audience would be huge and then which model do you use?
      In my experience as a learner, no one has ever surveyed me prior to commencing to find out what my learning style is. I’ve also never had the same material delivered in multiple ways in an attempt to cater for different styles!

  2. Joe Kirby

    November 10, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Learning styles have been dead and buried for quite some time. I’m surprised people still dig up the corpse to examine the bones.

    “Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!”
    H.G. Wells

    • learningsnippets

      November 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      Hi Joe
      Thanks for your comments. I think learning styles should be dead and buried given the lack of evidence to support them. However, unfortunately they still seem to linger in one form or another!

  3. Jason W.

    November 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Interesting ideas on learning styles! I would agree that our field has somewhat become overloaded with “theories on theories”, so I was not surprised by your findings related to learning styles. I do agree with the research in that appealing to the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic seems to make learning more interesting/engaging, but I’m not certain to what degree this truly facilitates a transfer of learning. I would also agree with your position on “unlearning”. Each learner and learner group is unique in that there are cultural, environmental, and emotional forces that can also impact the transfer of learning.

    Great Ideas! Thanks for sharing!

    • learningsnippets

      November 10, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      Hi Jason,
      Thanks for commenting! You are right; our field is full of theories that are supposed to relate to learning. Some of them, e.g. learning styles, become so entrenched that they are accepted by everyone. I really like Jane’s term of ‘unlearning’ something (like learning styles) that wasn’t very accurate to begin with!

  4. Rick Bartlett

    November 13, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I have to admit, I’m pretty entrenched in teaching LS and I’m finding it difficult to get my head around your post. Thanks for the link to Steve Wheeler’s post as well. I’m definitely going to have to track down the reference list you’ve given.
    I primarily teach Kolb’s version of LS and I do have an assessment that students complete. I realise this is self-directed and open to bias, but isn’t anything? What I’ve observed is people coming alive when they understand how they learn and why they haven’t done well in school, or other formal educational situations. I also recognise that we are all a conglomeration of the different styles, not one of us is a “pure” Analytic or Imaginative learner. I get that, but it seems to me people find help understanding how they think.
    Another benefit that I’ve observed is an appreciation for how to teach others. Maybe there is a different way to communicate this, but coming out of sessions where I’ve taught LS I’ve found an appreciation for the LS of others and a desire to approach lesson planning with a more holistic way. Again, maybe there are different ways to accomplish this besides teaching LS, but it’s been helpful to me.
    Finally, and connected to the previous point, I think most of us assume that “everyone else” learns in exactly the same way as me. I’ve appreciated LS as a concept because it helps break people out of the idea that “my way is the only way” and forces them to acknowledge that people are different. In the classroom I find that very valuable.

    • learningsnippets

      November 20, 2013 at 8:00 am

      Hi Rick
      Thanks for your comments. I do agree that talking about learning styles does make you appreciate that people are different not everyone is the same as you.
      However, I think that the danger of categorising someone as a particular style of learner is that many of the models suggest that we should match instruction to style for better results. Unfortunately this is not the case. You could cater for someone’s learning style and it still might not be explained very well so just because it ‘matches’ doesn’t mean it’s effective.
      As you mention we are a mixture of styles which, according to the theory, would mean that we prefer to learn different things in different ways which starts to make things messy because how can you cater for that?

  5. gtielemans4455

    November 14, 2013 at 10:43 am

    If this was the only myth in the classroom, I could live with it. But there are so many which appeal to the common sense (“idola”) of teachers – and worse – of teacher trainers: Multiple Intelligence, the mulitmedia pyramid, pictures help children learn to read, etc…

    I think it is better to rely on evidence based research, not on common sense: and then not these single articles in magazines who wish to catch readers, but meta-studies which compare results like the ones from Hattie and Marzano. But if you are more practical then start with the nice book that sits on the shoulders of these two researchers: Geoff Patty: “Evidence based teaching: a practical approach”

  6. Anne Hodgson

    November 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    The more interesting question is how to reach people whose preferred communication styles may differ from our own, and how to expand our repertoire as communicators.

  7. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach

    November 18, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Interesting discussion, thank you. You clearly demonstrated that some misconceptions about the brain and the learning process are hard to kill and still used in the classroom. Many “Neuro Myths” have been created from small studies visualizing brain parts that are activated when performing a specific task such as reading or speaking a language. However, neuroscience is a young discipline and any method claiming to boost learning based on brain imaging should be taken with caution.

    Here an article that is busting most common Neuro Myths such as “Some people are left-brained and some are right-brained” as actually we all used both parts for several activities.

    • learningsnippets

      November 20, 2013 at 8:05 am

      Hi Anne

      Thanks for reading and your comments. I hadn’t heard the term ‘Neuro Myths’ before, it’s appropriate for learning styles too. Great link to further reading – thank-you!

  8. Ryan Tracey

    November 20, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Good post, Matt.

    My trouble with learning styles is that there are myths and halftruths on both sides. For example, learning styles *do* exist. If you are watching a demonstration, you are learning visually; if you are listening to a podact, you are learning aurally; if you are building or feeling something with your hands, you are learning kinaesthetically. This is all plain English, no mystery there.

    The *real* question is – as you have quoted – whether learning styles should inform instructional design. And this, again, tends to get mixed up. As you point out, there is no empirical evidence to prove conclusively that we should. There is indeed evidence both for and against, but no significant corpus either way. Making matters worse, the “scientific” papers I have read are really quite awful.

    So…. I prefer to think in terms of the learner’s “preference”. The reason being, if we can accommodate the learner’s preference, then we can make the learning experience more engaging (and by implication, more effective). Otherwise we can just upload text-heavy page turners to the LMS and spend the rest of the time at the beach.

    One of my favourite doco’s is “The Unteachables” by Channel 4 in the UK. I urge all education professionals to watch this series – not to argue for or against learning styles, but to broaden the perspective.

    • learningsnippets

      November 20, 2013 at 8:07 am

      Hi Ryan,
      Thanks for your comments, I must say that its generated a lot of discussion from both sides here and on LinkedIn too.
      You are right about the problems from both sides. It was pointed out in a discussion on LinkedIn about the post that while the research doesn’t back up the matching of instruction to learning styles, many of the studies conducted to test the existence of learning styles haven’t been designed very well. The difficulty in designing for style or even preference is that how often is this information collected and used in the design? In my experience it’s not that often.
      My view is that the outcome of the learning event should influence design, for example, if you’re teaching customer service skills learners should have an opportunity to practice interacting with customers either via role plays in a classroom or making situational decisions if completing an eLearning course. Maybe it’s not the preference but the opportunity to apply the content in a meaningful way?
      I’ll be sure to check out the Untouchables too.

      • Ryan Tracey

        November 20, 2013 at 10:02 pm

        Bingo. It’s about making the learning experience authentic. You can’t learn how to ride a bike just by watching a YouTube clip (although that might help in the early stages).

  9. Brendon Eglinton (@BnTEg)

    November 20, 2013 at 4:00 am

    Good comment, Ryan – quite simply, we’ve (again) gone the full circle of theories stating how learning ‘should’ be done, back to realising we need to focus on providing what the learner really wants/prefers. I’ll need to check out your recommendation – can’t seem to find “The Unreachables” on Wikepedia…

    • learningsnippets

      November 20, 2013 at 8:11 am

      Thanks Brendon,
      You’re right in that we need to focus on the learner. We need to make the learning experience meaningful and relevant for what they need to be able to do.

  10. Joe Kirby

    November 20, 2013 at 6:44 am

    I almost posted a rant but decided perhaps it was not the best method to convince others that the world is indeed round and does rotate around the sun. Perhaps Professor Willingham can convince you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Learn. Show. Repeat.

Learn - Show - Repeat

John Stepper's Blog

Working Out Loud

Work Smarter Not Harder

Ask. Learn. Share | Mike Taylor's Weekly Tips & Tricks


Knowledge is power and I intend to make us all powerful.


A topnotch site


L&D from a different perspective


let's have coffee & discuss the design...

Jackie Van Nice

E-Learning Goodness by Jackie Van Nice

Michelle Ockers

Continuously learning, and supporting others to learn

The Knowledge Project

making e-Learning a better experience

Ripple Effect Group

Digital Workplace Design

Learning Rebels

Lifting Learning in Workplaces Today

Learning as I go...

Just another site

Lost and Desperate

Random ramblings that might, or might not, relate to training, learning, development, and management


Conversations to take learning forward

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to Learning

Tripping through the galaxy of Learning & Development

fuchsia blue

learning development change

Building Creative Bridges

Training Learning Collaboration Innovation


A blog to take my learning forward.

Gather with Purpose

intersection of community, learning and technology

Tayloring it...

A Web 2.0 newbie's effort at 'blogging' along with a rambling review of his work life in general...

Joanne Even's Blog

My journey through learning

Azhar's Reflections

Edu Journeys and Reflections

Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

A place to explore new ideas in Learning

%d bloggers like this: