The myth of learning styles

20 August, 2018

Don’t let an outdated, inaccurate theory limit the way you learn and teach

Are you a visual, kinaesthetic, or auditory learner? Are you better at learning new things through interaction with others or by yourself? You must have come across such questions more than once. For decades now, the concept of “learning styles” has been prevalent in schools, universities, and corporates. This widely-followed theory states that each person has a dominant learning style, which is the most effective way for them to acquire new knowledge and skills.

Around the world, teachers and trainers are encouraged to identify each person’s learning style and to customise their lessons for different types of learners. I’ve also seen many of us practice this concept at work (myself included). While making presentations or planning workshops, for example, we add extra elements to suit different learning preferences – perhaps a narrative for auditory learners, lots of pictures and diagrams for visual learners, and text handouts for linguistic learners.

There’s just one problem with this all-pervasive idea: it’s not really true.

A little over a year ago, 30 eminent scientists sent a letter sent to The Guardian (UK) stating that there is no evidence that learning through a preferred style leads to achieving better results. The letter went on to add that categorising learners can lead to “the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt”.

So, this week, my message is on debunking the myth of learning styles.

Now, I know that some of you must be thinking, “Learning styles are real, I’ve seen them work!” or “I don’t know about other people, but my learning style definitely works for me.” Your scepticism is understandable: the theory has been around for a long time, and practically everybody buys into it. (According to one survey, over 90% of the general public in the US believes in the effectiveness of learning styles.) The idea that each person has a specific learning method corresponding to their unique strengths is intuitively appealing. Plus, it translates well into personality tests and quick-fix advice, making it even more attractive.

The concept of learning styles

The concept of learning styles started gaining popularity in the 1970s, and was bolstered by psychologist Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory. According to Gardner, intelligence comes in various forms, with eight distinct categories at work: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

The idea of multiple intelligences is reflected strongly in today’s learning style models – even though Gardner himself has criticised the conflation of these two concepts and questioned the validity of learning styles. Another popular model, VARK, further simplifies this classification: visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic. (The online 16-question VARK questionnaire is a good example of the quick-and-easy appeal of learning styles.)

So, why does all of this matter? If people want to believe in learning styles and tailor their own teaching/learning process accordingly, what’s the harm?

As Dr.TesiaMarshik explains in her TEDx Talk on learning styles, there are two key reasons why it’s important to dismantle this theory:

  1. We can’t afford to be wasting our time and resources trying to promote learning styles when there is no evidence that it actually helps learning.
  2. Labelling yourself as a (specific type of) learner or labelling a student as a learner can not only be misleading, but it can be dangerous. If I as a teacher think that you have a particular learning style and that you only learn in one way, that might prevent me from trying other strategies that could otherwise help you learn the information better. Likewise if you as a student believe that you have a particular learning style, that could cause you to shut down or lose interest when a teacher isn’t teaching in a way that is consistent with your preferred style.

In the context of our work, it’s especially important for leaders not to fall into the learning style trap – both as learners and teachers. Here are some aspects to consider:

1. Focus on what’s important: the learning

In my last few messages, I’ve been emphasising the need for all of us to continue learning and upskilling, so we can keep pace with the rapidly-changing business landscape. With our tight schedules and limited mental bandwidth, it’s crucial for us to employ genuinely effective learning methods instead of being concerned about crafting and looking for options that suit a particular learning style.

2. Labels can be restrictive

As a leader, you frequently take on the role of a teacher, from mentorship to training programmes, and it’s important for you not to confine anyone to a single learning style. For example, if you’re convinced that one of your team members has a logical-mathematical style, you might try to force-feed them every concept through that narrow lens – which could actually impede their learning instead of enabling it. If anything, you should be opening up people to new experiences and learning. That can’t come from boxing them in.

3. A particular learning style doesn’t mean more effective learning

Numerous studies have reached the same conclusion:

Adhering to a particular learning style does not lead to more effective learning. What’s more, people don’t seem to have a dominant learning style in the first place. For example, so-called visual learners should logically be able to recall images more clearly and achieve better learning outcomes by using pictorial materials – but both of these assumptions have been proven false.

You may prefer a particular method of instruction – text, diagrams, audio, etc. – but that doesn’t mean it actuallyworks better for you. As Dr.Marshik explains in the TEDx Talk mentioned above, the bulk of what we learn is stored in terms of meaning, not according to a sensory mode:

In order to retain information, we have to organise it in a way that’s meaningful. We have to make connections to it, connecting it to our experiences, or coming up with our own examples, or thinking of how we’re learning something…and how that relates to what else we know.

4. Follow the content

Dr.Marshik also emphasises that the best way to learn/ teach something depends on the content itself. For example, to know what a building looks like, you should study its pictures or go see it in real life. However, that doesn’t make you a visual learner – the same advice applies to all learners. Of course, most topics aren’t as one-dimensional as that and can be mastered using multiple modes. To pick up new negotiation skills, for instance, you could go through relevant articles and books (reading), watch demo videos (visual and auditory), and do role-plays (kinaesthetic). As she points out:

It’s not that different modes make it meaningful to different people based on their learning style…it’s because incorporating multiple sensory experiences into one lesson makes it more meaningful.

To put it simply, use different learning methods when the content calls for them, rather than forcing each topic to fit a pre-decided mould. The fact that learning styles don’t exist is great news: instead of restricting yourself or other people to a specific methodology, you can experiment with new possibilities. Conversely, you don’t need to add in “something for everyone” in every presentation or training module – you can focus only on the elements that make sense.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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