Learning Styles Don't Work - But Who Cares If They Help?

Posted by Jennifer Hofmann on Mar 4, 2014 2:59:00 PM
Jennifer Hofmann

A personal take on the Learning Styles Debate

Okay, so maybe that isn't clear?  Allow me to explain. 


Last summer I spent a weekend relaxing with Dr. Jane Bozarth and other credentialed Learning & Development professionals. While staring at the lake and sipping our colorful beverages of choice, we invariably discussed our favorite relaxing subjects – specifically, e-learning and the training industry. (Please give us geeks credit for attempting to vacation away from work.)

A favorite topic was the age-old treatment of the role of learning styles in the development of virtual classroom (or any) training. We see references to the importance of using learning styles in everything from trade magazines to academic literature, yet there has been no research (absolutely NONE according to my learned PhD type colleagues) to substantiate the value of using them by instructional designers for either traditional or virtual learning.

To summarize the debate, see the article in Wikipedia, and use that to branch out to learn more. (After all, if it is in Wikipedia, it must be credible.)

Wikipedia Entry

Learning style is an individual's natural or habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information in learning situations. A core concept is that individuals differ in how they learn.[1] The idea of individualized learning styles originated in the 1970s, and has greatly influenced education.[2]

Proponents of the use of learning styles in education recommend that teachers assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student's learning style. Although there is ample evidence for differences in individual thinking and ways of processing various types of information, few studies have reliably tested the validity of using learning styles in education.[2] Critics say there is no evidence that identifying an individual student's learning style produces better outcomes. There is evidence of empirical and pedagogical problems related to the use of learning tasks to "correspond to differences in a one-to-one fashion".[3] Well-designed studies contradict the widespread "meshing hypothesis", that a student will learn best if taught in a method deemed appropriate for the student's learning style.[2]

The key point that comes up in these discussions is, “Critics say there is no evidence that identifying an individual student's learning style produces better outcomes.” And the critics are so certain that you’ll sometimes see someone at a conference offering cash (up to $1000!) for any evidence that application of learning styles in program design is valid. And so far, no one has collected the prize. 

Okay. I don’t need any more convincing. Applicaton of learning styles should not impact instructional design. 

But why then, do so many eLearning designers cite the importance of addressing learning styles in designs, and why do the collective ‘rest of us’ seem to buy into it?

I think it’s because it’s so easy to understand and apply the concept of learning styles to program design, even if it isn’t a valid approach to learning.

Let’s face it - many people designing training have little to no formal education in the best way to create experiences that meet desired performance outcomes. Many informal designers are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) thrust into training positions and working hard to excel in a domain in which they have little or no experience. They are bombarded with requirements that aren’t related to performance (use the latest technologies, make it accessible, make it engaging, make it fast, make it cheap) and they do their best to create programs despite the organizational constraints and operational limitations of their particular environment.

Creating content that appeals to visual learners, kinesthetic learners, and auditory learners is a concept that makes sense to most of us. After all, shouldn’t the way we learn be appealing, comfortable, and accessible?

The result is that designers who use learning styles as a basis for their programs often create visually stimulating, kinesthetically engaging, and well-scripted interactions that draw on a variety of technologies and treatments of the subject matter. These modules can be interesting and fun, but more importantly, they provide variance in the instructional narrative.

I agree that ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ doesn’t equate to ‘effective.' We’ve all attended programs that are energizing and memorable, but not particularly applicable to our jobs. People ask, “How did you like that class?” and we answer, “It was great!” They ask, “Should I attend?” and we answer, “Definitely.”

Level 1 evaluation results (what participants thought and felt about the training) for these types of programs tend to be off the charts. The program designers/developers get very positive feedback, and they keep doing what they are doing. (Wouldn’t you?)

But three months later, we haven’t adapted our skills or changed our behavior, and if a Level 3 evaluation (transfer of knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes from classroom to the job) was conducted, the program would be considered a failure.

The problem is we don’t tend to conduct Level 3 evaluations, and so we never know that the fun, engaging programs aren’t meeting the intended outcomes.

And we keep doing what we are doing.

I say the issue isn’t the intellectual investment in learning styles. Even if their application doesn’t impact outcomes, at least we have programs that our learners want to attend. The fault lies with the fact that we allow Level 1 evaluations to define quality of instruction.

Organizations haven’t gone to the next step, and empowered designers/developers to create engaging programs that actually work. Organizations need to provide training, time, and budget to create instructionally sound programs that include:

  • Defining learning outcomes and performance objectives.
  • Creating assessment instruments that truly measure the outcomes.
  • The ability (and time) to pilot and change content based on outcomes.

When organizations start investing in defining and measuring against performance outcomes rather than learner reactions, we can stop worrying about the validity of learning styles, and turn instead to what organizations really want out of learning - employees who learn, retain and use what they've learned from the training on the job.

Are you ready to take your virtual and blended learning to the next level?  Check out our Advanced Virtual Classroom Mastery Certificate course and discover how you can earn your Advanced Virtual Classroom Mastery Badge by clicking on the graphic below.

Advanced Virtual Classroom Mastery Certificate


Topics: Virtual Classroom - Instructional Design, The opinions expressed herein...