Despite their popularity, there’s no empirical evidence to show that learning styles are valid nor that there are any measurables available to accurately show how much is being learned when learning styles are used. We explore why they’re still so popular despite this, and what you can use instead.
The concept of learning styles (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) has become so entrenched that even those not in the education field take it as given that people learn better when they’re taught in a way that matches their specific ‘learning style.’ However, when you dig a little deeper or if you follow many Instructional Designers or Learning and Development folks online, you’ll find that learning styles are actually considered a myth. This ‘debunking’ is also backed up by research.
In fact, William Furey explains that research going back 50+ years (as long as learning style-type theories have been around) shows that generally, learners don’t actually learn better or experience any tangible benefits from having information presented to them in a preferred learning style. As Furey says, “There is no evidence that designing lessons that appeal to different learning styles accelerates student learning.”
Despite this, learning styles don’t seem to be going away. Why is that? And where do they come from in the first place?
Where do Learning Styles Come From?
“Like many misconceptions about learning and the brain, the belief in learning styles stems from an incorrect interpretation of valid research findings and scientifically established facts.”– William Furey
The concept of people learning in different styles seems to have emerged in the 1970s, but the more well-known learning styles theory came from Neil Fleming in the 1980s. His theory, usually referred to as VARK, presents four types of learning styles:
- Visual: information is absorbed through images, e.g., graphs, photos, illustrations
- Auditory: information is presented using sounds, e.g., audiobooks, songs, voice notes
- Reading/writing: information is presented in written format, e.g., books, articles
- Kinesthetic: information is processed through ‘doing’ (experience or touch), e.g., simulations, modelling
While science has shown that different parts of our brains process different types of information and in different ways, there’s been no evidence since the VARK theory came out to demonstrate these learning styles help us learn any better. Studies seem to show that rather than needing to learn in one way (e.g., through touch or via audio), it seems that we just have different preferences and abilities when it comes to learning. In other words, learning styles don’t link to or demonstrate our abilities, they simply show the differences in how we prefer to process information.
Is it a Bad Thing That Learning Style Theory Prevails?
A potential positive of learning styles is that it’s encouraged educators to be more learner-centric and include more variety in learning materials for learners at all levels, compared to the old-fashioned ‘learn by rote’ memorization style or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ methodology. This variety may have helped, but the problem becomes that VARK-type categories also do just that – categorize learners. Putting learners into one of four learning style categories imposes limits and assumes that each learner will only learn using one style every time, even though, as Waterford.org says, “how [learners] best learn may vary depending on the project.”
In an American Psychology Association article, Dr.Shaylene Nancekivell explains that the learning styles model can undermine education because “educators spend time and money tailoring lessons to certain learning styles for different students even though all students would benefit from learning through various methods.”
Why Aren’t Learning Styles Going Away?
“It seems likely that the appeal of the learning styles myth rests in its fit with the way people like to think about behavior. People prefer brain-based accounts of behavior, and they like to categorize people into types. Learning styles allow people to do both of those things.”– Dr. Shaylene Nancekivell
So, why aren’t learning styles going away if there’s nothing to support their validity? Along with Dr. Nancekivell’s assertion that we tend to prefer brain-based reasons for behaviour, and not to sound too conspiracy theorist, it may have a lot to do with the fact that there’s heavy investment in learning styles. A vast and varied industry makes a lot of money from marketing and selling learning-style assessments, products, and educational interventions to both parents and educators. It becomes a vicious cycle: learning styles are entrenched in our culture (and in the education community and pedagogy too), so they’re easy to market, which keeps them entrenched in our culture. And on and on.
What’s the Alternative to Learning Styles?
All of this ‘debunking’ leaves us with the question: if learning styles are ineffective or unsubstantiated, then what can or should we do instead to help support learners and improve their overall learning experience?
At PathWise Solutions, we keep the focus on what learners need to be able to know and do differently once they’ve completed a course. This means focusing on the purpose of the training and specifically who it’s for, in other words, the why and how this information or training will impact the learner’s day-to-day job, why the learner should care and what the learner needs to properly absorb key ideas. Training may need to include written information, audio, graphics, and simulations, but ultimately, content is tailored to necessary learning outcomes, the learner’s information preferences, and how the learner is likely to be taking the training (e.g., via mobile in short bursts, blended learning, more formal classroom training).
While this means that courses may include VARK components, what we end up incorporating depends on the specific skills learners need to develop, not their supposed learning styles. The learner is still at the core, but we carefully evaluate the information they need and don’t need and then decide on the best way(s) to include that information. As Rick Presley explains, “Evaluate the task or skill that you want the learners to acquire and train them in the matter that best reflects or mimics the actual performance of the task.”
Something else we focus on is accessibility. Information presented in certain ways (e.g., through a diagram rather than text) may not work for a learner using a screen reader, for example. If you default to learning styles, you risk alienating or excluding large groups of learners that need accessible activities and information.
What’s an Example that Doesn’t Use Learning Styles?
When PathWise Solutions built a course for Canucks Autism Network called Autism Awareness for First Responders, we determined that the most effective way to help learners absorb the material would be through video interviews with first responders and others who had experience working with individuals with autism – not because this related to a preferred learning style of the audience, but because key information could best be conveyed through first-hand accounts from those in the same types of jobs as learners; this meant learners could identify with the person speaking and learn from their experiences.
We also included interactive scenarios based on real-world situations the learners might encounter on the job and when working with individuals with autism. This enabled learners to practice what they were learning in a safe, risk-free environment. This also ensured training was easy to absorb, while remaining relevant, practical and engaging. You can learn more about this course on our website.
What’s the Key Takeaway?
You don’t need learning style-based material to effectively convey your content. And there’s no proof it works either. You can (and should) create learner-centric materials and content, but next time, skip the learning style concept and focus on specific learner needs and learning outcomes in order to ensure a successful, accessible learning experience for all.