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The myth of learning styles

Individual differences matter in learning outcomes…but maybe not the way you think they do

By Dr Tanya Boyd, Insights Learning Architect

If I were to ask what your learning style is, you would probably have an answer.

Most people do, and we tend to readily classify ourselves as learners using terms like visual, auditory, social, or experiential.

The term "learning style" refers to a view that different people learn information and skills in different ways.* The implication of this view is that if people do differ in the ways they learn, they will certainly learn better if learning is presented to them in their own style.

This belief shows up in all levels of education by educators and vendors providing tools to first identify a person's learning style, and then building learning content and experiences that cater to it.

This all sounds quite reasonable, and it even resonates from a common sense perspective.

The problem, though, is that there is no solid evidence that this proposition is valid.


A closer look at the role of learning styles

While people do have preferences around their style of learning, there is no evidence to suggest that learning presented to an individual in their preferred style leads to better learning outcomes than learning presented in another (unpreferred) style.

To be specific, studies that have evaluated whether "auditory" learners learn better when given auditory learning rather than visual or kinesthetic, and whether "visual" learners learn better when given visual learning rather than auditory or kinesthetic, etc. have shown no relationship.

What these studies DID show is that learning outcomes depend more on matching the content with well-established learning principles that apply to all people.

Unfortunately, in some cases, using individual "learning styles" as the primary structure for learning content design can lead to offering learning experiences and resources that actually go against well-supported principles for how people learn overall.


Leveraging individual differences

Now, all is not lost. There’s a lot about individual differences that we can learn and leverage rather than focusing on designing learning to cater to different learning styles.

If you were paying attention in that last section, you will have noticed that I did not claim that learning preferences or preferred styles do not exist; just that they do not directly influence learning outcomes.

What our perceived learning styles MAY influence is motivation, and that is important in itself.

Motivation to learn has always been important, but it is particularly important now as people have more demands competing for their time and attention, and are being given more autonomy and empowerment in choosing their learning pathways.

Knowing how to motivate learners is an important and valuable step in the learning process, and this is where individual preferences can help.

Personality, or psychological preference, is another factor that can provide insight into motivation to learn.

As individuals gain self-awareness about their strengths, possible weaknesses, values, ways of interacting, and approach to decision making, they may better understand what motivates them, which can influence their learning choices.

Supporting learner choice in approach to learning is a good thing as long as the learning itself is designed with evidence-based principles in mind.


Solid learning principles and motivation

What this means is that, as long as solid learning principles are used in the design of a learning experience, allowing an individual to choose the way they engage in the learning may mean they are motivated to complete the training. This is a good thing.

As an example, a science lesson offered through immersive virtual reality (IVR) was compared to slide-based training. While the slide presentation led to slightly better demonstration of learning outcomes, learners preferred the IVR approach.

So…if some learners will be more motivated to actually complete the training when offered in IVR, it may be worth the slightly lower learning outcome scores that result from this approach. In this case, perhaps the best approach would be to offer both options and let the learners decide.

However, there is an important caveat.

We want to be careful to only offer free choice where there is not a substantial negative difference in outcomes associated with any of the options.

For example, there is ample evidence that looking at worked examples and actually practising new skills are key components of effective learning; so it makes more sense to include these components of a learning experience for all learners rather than making them optional.


What kinds of individual differences DO matter?

Well, the most important area of individual differences that we should leverage to positively impact learning design, experience and outcomes is the learner's prior knowledge and expertise.

If we consider two broad types of learners, called Novice and Experienced, there are quite distinct differences in how they learn and how learning experiences should be designed.

As an example, including relevant graphics in learning is important for novice learners, but has no impact on learning outcomes for experienced learners.

Most likely this is because experienced learners can create their own images in their heads based on their experiences, so seeing an image presented as part of learning materials is not helpful.

Another example is that, while novice learners learn effectively from step-by-step examples, experienced learners learn more effectively by solving problems.

One of the most useful things we can do in designing learning experiences, then, is to design with the level of experience of the learner in mind.

We also must help the learner identify and select the appropriate learning experience by evaluating their expertise up front. This increases both effectiveness and efficiency of learning, as well as the engagement and motivation of the learner.

Beyond individual differences, other important considerations for learning designers are the goals for the learning (e.g. awareness, skill building), and the type of content (e.g. simple, complex).

When these are weighed along with broadly applicable learning principles like spaced learning, practice with feedback, and social learning, we lay the pathway for effective learning experiences and resources.


*Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9:105-119.