Senior Strategist

Are Learning Styles a Myth? Challenging Assumptions about How People Learn Best

What’s your learning style? Are you sure?

At one point or another, most of us have expressed our learning styles and learning preferences: maybe you consider yourself a visual learner; maybe you consistently get tripped up when listening to audio lectures. Either way, the concept of learning styles is deeply embedded in our culture—but in the learning space, it’s a highly debated topic.

So, what does the science really say about learning styles? How do we know if they even exist? And if there’s nothing to the learning styles myth, how should we think about learning instead?

What are learning styles?

The theory behind learning styles is that it’s beneficial to account for an individual’s preferred  learning styles when providing instruction or training. Neil Fleming popularized the theory in the 1990s, and he also developed the VARK questionnaire to help identify someone’s unique learning preferences.

In practice, learning professionals who subscribe to this theory aim to design lessons that will resonate with the different learning styles of individual learners: visual (seeing), aural (listening), reading/writing, and kinesthetic (hands-on learning). That could mean taking the same information and sharing it through pictures and diagrams for some learners (visual) and through a hands-on demonstration for others (kinesthetic).

People use all types of learning styles

It’s human nature to crave a deeper understanding of our behaviors and traits. It’s why self-analysis tools like Myers-Briggs, Enneagrams, and even astrology are increasingly popular. Different learning styles offer seemingly scientific insight and rationale for our behavior and even our strengths and weaknesses, but here’s the problem: there’s no empirical evidence that tailoring instruction to learning styles actually works. In fact, there’s way more evidence that catering to learning styles doesn’t work—and some in the learning community are so certain about the myth of  learning styles that they’re offering a $5,000 reward for any research that can prove the validity of learning styles.

So, are learning styles real? Are learning styles valid in any way? Despite how widespread the theory is, studies have shown time and again that people aren’t just one kind of learner. Luckily, there’s an upside to debunking the learning styles myth.

From learner to learner, we have more in common than we might think, and learning preference does not equal capacity. The latest research on learning styles shows that learning preferences aside, most everyone has a complete toolbox of ways to think. For example, even if you have a preference for watching a video, you probably still have the capacity to learn effectively through writing or reading. And in fact, the human brain is fairly predictable in how it responds to different tasks, engaging certain sensory areas of the brain—like visual, aural, or kinesthetic—for certain tasks, regardless of learning preference.

In other words, learning professionals can worry less about matching their content to the learning styles of individual learners and instead focus on identifying the right tool for the job.

How to build more effective learning experiences

While there’s no real harm in tailoring to the perceived preferences of learners, there can be a cost. When learning professionals invest too much time into identifying and accommodating individual learning preferences, they may be missing out on opportunities to create more effective learning experiences that are backed up by the science of how people learn. In that way, adhering to the learning styles myth could be doing some damage to your learning efforts.

With learning styles debunked, what are some new ways to approach your next learning project? We’ve spent years discovering what makes a powerful learning experience—here are a few ideas to help you design a learning experience that will resonate with all types of learners.

Aim for behavior change

There are so many different ways to transfer knowledge, and making the right choice can be overwhelming. Take a step back and consider the problem that needs to be solved. What behavior needs to change? Reliable and proven learning philosophies like the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model can help you determine how you’ll evaluate the success of your learning project. Thinking about it through the lens of what behavior needs to change, and how learners will need to apply the behavior, will help you identify the best way to design your content.

Listen to the learner

While there’s no scientific imperative to accommodate learning styles, it’s still important to listen to learners and get to know your audience. Field research is a powerful tool for understanding the context of where your learners currently are: their prior knowledge, current challenges, and future goals. Understanding learner context will influence and inform the right fit for your audience.

Replication of the learning context

There are specific questions you should be able to answer before you start designing your learning project. For example, it’s important to consider context: how can you get the learner as close as possible to the real-world context in which they’ll  be applying the behaviors? How can they practice the behaviors they’re learning in realistic ways? Think scenario-based simulations, role play, and experiential learning. The closer you get to the actual context, the easier the transition from learning experience to real-world application will be.

Debunking the learning styles myth

Although the theory of learning styles isn’t backed up by science, the truth is much better: people benefit from all types of learning, which opens up countless opportunities to create learning experiences that truly empower learners.

The science of how people learn, made simple.

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