Learning styles, learning shmyles — do we REALLY learn in different ways?

by on April 6, 2016 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

If you’re responsible for training in your organization, and you’ve conscientiously read the literature on human learning, you’ve probably come across the concept of “learning styles.” You know, the idea that some people are “visual” learners who absorb information best through images, while others are “auditory” or “kinetic” learners, who learn best by hearing or doing, respectively.

Well, you can forget about all that. At least, this is the conclusion that a number of researchers have come to in the past 5-10 years.

In fact, several of these researchers go so far as to term the learning styles idea a “neuromyth.” They put it in the same ballpark as the canards that “most people use only 10% of their brainpower” or that left brain vs. right brain dominance determines whether you’re more analytical or more creative.

Just a myth
One of these researchers is Paul Howard-Jones, a professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University in England. In a 2014 paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, he wrote this: “Perhaps the most popular and influential myth is that a student learns most effectively when they are taught in their preferred learning style.”

Another British researcher, Philip Newton, at Swansea University’s college of medicine, is even more trenchant. “Learning styles do not work,” he wrote in a paper for Frontiers in Psychology last year.


Perhaps the most thorough discrediting of learning styles came in a 2008 paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest written by a team of psychology professors led by Harold Pashler of the University of California-San Diego. These researchers did a sweeping review of the academic literature on learning styles, and concluded that there was “virtually no evidence” the method worked as advertised. A team led by Beth Rogowsky of Bloomsburg University, PA, did a series of follow-up experiments on 121 adult learners in 2014, and their results, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, supported the conclusions of the Pashler team.

Buying the story
So if teaching people according to their supposed visual, auditory or kinetic learning style preferences doesn’t work, why do a number of learning professionals still think it does? And they do think that. According to a 2012 study, 93% of a sample of teachers in Britain and 96% in the Netherlands believed in using learning style preferences to teach their students.

According to Newton at Swansea University, there are a lot of learning-style cheerleaders out there. “The current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use,” he writes. “This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students.”

Howard-Jones at Bristol University has another explanation: Learning professionals too often swallow “uninformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” The fact behind the learning styles myth, he says, is that different areas of the cerebral cortex have different roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing. From that, he says, the learning stylists have concluded that learners learn differently according to which part of their brain works better. There’s a problem with that idea, though, and it’s a big one. Howard-Jones points out that the different regions of the brain are interconnected, and this fact makes the assumption behind learning styles “unsound.”

What to do?
So back to you, the employee learning/training guy or gal. Where does all this leave you? Should you simply abandon the idea of making any distinctions between visual vs. auditory vs. kinetic learning in your training sessions?

Well, if you’ve been asking people to specify their preferred learning style, yes, you should probably stop that. It doesn’t help, and it only complicates your training design. But you can still use the idea in another format, according to Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

Willingham, quoted in the online news magazine Quartz, says what learning professionals can do is match content to the learning style that’s best suited to convey it — for everybody. In other words, you might use the visual style when orienting people to the layout of a new suite of offices you’re going to be moving into. And the auditory style when training customer service reps on their scripts. And the kinetic style when showing people how to operate a new piece of equipment.

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