Learning Styles: Debunking A Harmful Practice

Have you ever wondered how many times people search “learning styles” on Google? No need to think much about it. The answer is too many!

According to Google’s Keyword Planner (the thing marketers use to find the words you’re searching for), people search for the keyword "learning styles" on average 12K times a month. Let me repeat that, 12K every month! Just to put it in perspective, exactly the same audience, only searches for “L&D” on average 4.4K a month.

Although I was a bit scared of what I’d uncover, I decided to check what information somebody finds when searching for "learning styles" on Google. I read over 100 search results on the topic and I got sad, very sad.

Less than 10% of the results (eg. articles, videos) mention in any way that this theory is not backed by research. You might wonder: “Why should we even care about debunking the myth of learning styles, at a time when everyone is talking about how AI will revolutionize learning and L&D?” Read on to find out.

What is the learning styles theory?

The Learning Styles Theory has floated around educational circles for years, presenting a seemingly fascinating idea. At its core, it claims that each of us leans towards a particular mode of learning.

Some of us are drawn to visuals, soaking up charts, graphics, and written words. Others might resonate more with auditory cues, thriving in lecture-style environments or when plugged into a podcast. Yet, others may find they grasp concepts best when they're doing hands-on activities, immersing themselves in the physicality of learning.

However, the Learning Styles Theory goes beyond just identifying these preferences. It takes a bold step to claim that the secret to effective learning lies in tapping into these preferences. By aligning teaching techniques with individual learning styles, the theory promises enhanced comprehension and retention. It’s an enticing concept, and on the surface, it appears to offer a tailor-made solution to education.

However, here's where things get a bit tricky. If you pause and ponder the vast complexities of the human brain, it's challenging to accept the notion that our cognitive processes could fit neatly into a few categories. Can our diverse, adaptive, and evolving ways of understanding really be pigeonholed into just three or four styles? This foundational question pushes us to dig deeper and scrutinize the theory's underlying assumptions.

Learning styles vs. scientific research

When it comes to the Learning Styles Theory, it's got its charm. It's simple, straightforward, and offers a neat answer to the complex question of how people learn. On the other hand, scientific research doesn't always come in such an easy-to-digest package.

The idea behind learning styles is alluring.: people have specific ways they prefer to learn, so we should cater to those preferences. But as tempting as this concept is, the evidence backing it up is thin. Researchers like Pashler and Rohrer have explored this theory, and what they've found might surprise many. There's a big gap between the claims of the Learning Styles Theory and the actual evidence supporting it.

Yet, the theory persists. Why? Maybe because it's simple to understand. On the other hand, research papers, filled with data and detailed methodologies, can be tough to navigate. But just because something is simpler doesn't make it right. It's essential to weigh the charm of simplicity against the weight of evidence. And in this battle, evidence should come out on top.

Why should we question learning styles?

I didn’t decide to write about learning styles merely to oppose the theory. My intention is to highlight how this notion, while attractive, might be misleading us from the true essence of crafting meaningful learning experiences.

So, what are the reasons that prompt such skepticism?

  • Lack of Concrete Evidence: The foundation of any educational theory should be rooted in strong research. Surprisingly, for something as widespread as the Learning Styles theory, the evidence is light. Numerous academic studies have delved into its claims. Still, a majority of them either find inconclusive results or can't find substantial support for the idea that teaching using a particular style offers any significant advantage.
  • Over-Simplification of Human Nature: Claiming that each person has a fixed learning style might be doing a disservice to our complex cognitive nature. People are adaptable. Today's auditory learner might be tomorrow's kinesthetic enthusiast. By categorizing learners strictly, we're denying them the diverse experiences that stimulate comprehensive understanding.
  • Potential for Bias and Stereotyping: There's danger in strict labels. Once a student is branded a "visual learner," there might be unconscious biases towards how they're taught. They could be unintentionally deprived of experiences that might be outside their 'label' but could lead to profound learning moments.
  • Suppressing Growth and Adaptability: Solely relying on the learning styles theory can restrict innovation in learning design methods. Why? If we focus only on one perceived style, we might miss out on other equally, if not more, effective strategies that cater to a broader audience.
  • The intricate fabric of life: Real-world scenarios rarely cater to our supposed learning preferences. Whether it's a job task, a DIY project, or just daily interactions, we're exposed to a blend of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli. Preparing learners in only one way could mean they're less equipped to handle diverse situations.

Based on the reasons above, it's my firm belief that it's time for us, as L&D professionals, to pivot away from the Learning Styles model. By recognizing its limitations, we can make room for more versatile and evidence-backed educational methodologies.

If we’re not using learning styles, then what: how to approach learning effectively

If we're moving away from the Learning Styles paradigm, the immediate question becomes: "Then what?" Fortunately, neuroscience provides us with a richer, more reliable compass for designing effective learning experiences.

Here's how to navigate.

Be aware of cognitive load

Remember, our brains have a threshold. Overloading it can be counterproductive. Instead of bombarding learners with a ton of information, it's wiser to introduce concepts gradually. Break down complex topics into bite-sized chunks and allow time for reflection. This ensures the material is digestible and resonates more deeply with the learner.

  • Segmented Modules: Divide courses into shorter, focused modules, ensuring each targets a specific learning outcome.
  • Use Visual Aids: Graphics, diagrams, and animations can simplify complex information, reducing cognitive strain.
  • Encourage Breaks: Incorporate intervals between learning sessions to allow information processing and reduce mental fatigue.

Nudge active recall

Passive learning seldom leads to long-term retention. Enter active recall – the practice of actively testing one's memory. When crafting learning modules, incorporate periodic quizzes, discussion prompts, or reflective exercises. This nudges learners to retrieve information, reinforcing neural pathways and solidifying the content.

  • Frequent Quizzes: Embed short quizzes at the end of sections to test retention and comprehension.
  • Peer Discussions: Encourage group discussions or forums where learners can discuss and debate topics.
  • Reflective Journals: Prompt learners to keep journals, jotting down key takeaways and personal reflections.

Design for spaced repetition

Revisiting material over staggered intervals is a game-changer. By spacing out review sessions, we leverage the "forgetting curve" to our advantage. If you're designing a course module, consider sending recap emails or offering review quizzes a week, then a month, then maybe three months post the initial session. This rhythm can help embed the knowledge more firmly in the learner's long-term memory.

  • Scheduled Review Sessions: Periodically reintroduce past topics in newer modules or sessions.
  • Automated Reminders: Use systems to send notifications prompting learners to revisit certain materials.
  • Adaptive Learning Platforms: Employ platforms that adjust content delivery based on learner performance, often revisiting previously learned concepts.

Design for emotional connection

Humans aren't robots. We're influenced heavily by our emotions. If a learning experience can tap into this, the content becomes more relatable and memorable. Storytelling, real-life examples, and peer interactions are just a few methods to weave emotion into the learning process.

  • Narrative Learning: Structure lessons around a story or case study, offering a relatable context.
  • Peer Learning: Encourage group discussions, collaboration, and team-based projects. When learners share and reflect on their experiences, it can foster deeper emotional connections and amplify the resonance of the content.
  • Real-world Applications: Showcase the real-life impact of the knowledge, creating a personal relevance for the learner.

By aligning our learning designs with these neuroscience-backed principles, we stand a better chance at crafting experiences that aren't just informative but transformative.

Challenges of moving away from learning styles

Taking the step away from Learning Styles towards a more research-informed design certainly has its challenges.

  • Deep-rooted Beliefs: Learning Styles have been an integral part of many educational and learning frameworks for years. For many educators and L&Ds, this theory has been the foundation of their instructional designs. Shifting from something so deeply ingrained requires not just changing a method, but altering a belief system that has been reinforced over years of practice.
  • Skepticism: Whenever there's talk of change, especially in established systems, resistance is a given. People might question the validity of new methods or might view them as just another passing trend. Convincing stakeholders, be it educators, students, or corporate leaders, requires solid evidence and persuasive communication.
  • Complexity: Approaching learning design through the lens of neuroscience undoubtedly introduces complexity. Where Learning Styles provided a simple, if not over-simplified, framework, delving into brain-based strategies requires a deeper understanding. It means investing time in continuous learning and keeping up with the ever-evolving research in neuroscience.
  • Budget Constraints: Transitioning to a research-based learning approach might entail redesigning existing courses or programs. This could require new tools, technologies, or even learning for L&Ds. For institutions or organizations operating on tight budgets, this change can represent a significant financial challenge.
  • Overcoming the Popularity: Learning Styles, with their simplicity and easy-to-understand approach, have a sort of 'pop culture' status in education. Moving past this requires creating awareness about the actual benefits of a research-based approach, dispelling myths, and continuously showcasing the tangible benefits of the new methods.

The journey away from Learning Styles to a more evidence-based learning design might seem challenging, but the potential for enhancing the quality and effectiveness of learning experiences makes it a venture worth pursuing.

Final thoughts

The allure of the Learning Styles Theory is undeniable. Its simplicity and the comfort it offers in categorizing learners into neat boxes can be appealing to both educators and learners. However, as we've delved into throughout this article, the actual mechanics of our brain and the intricacies of learning far surpass such straightforward classifications.

A deeper dive into the science of learning, particularly neuroscience, reveals the depth and breadth of how we truly assimilate information. It beckons us, especially those in the Learning & Development field, to design learning experiences that align with these scientific insights. The journey might be challenging, but the rewards in terms of more effective, engaging, and enriching learning experiences are invaluable. As we move forward, let's strive to bridge the gap between popular theories and scientific realities, ensuring that our approaches to learning are rooted in evidence and best practices.

Lavinia Mehedintu has been designing learning experiences and career development programs for the past 9 years both in the corporate world and in higher education. As a Co-Founder and Learning Architect @Offbeat she’s applying adult learning principles so that learning & people professionals can connect, collaborate, and grow. She’s passionate about social learning, behavior change, and technology and constantly puts in the work to bring these three together to drive innovation in the learning & development space.

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