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May 26, 2015

Are Learning Styles Going Out of Style?

Bruce Murray

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How do you learn more quickly and thoroughly? Some say they learn best through hearing and speaking about new concepts. Others prefer visual presentations. Kinesthetic learning is a preferred style for some. That is, they like to touch and get their whole body involved. Is your best learning sequentially (step-by-step) or holistically (examining the big picture and then delving into specific details)?

I’ve listed only five of the more than 70 hypotheses of learning styles that psychologists have developed since David Kolb’s revolutionary work, "Experiential Learning," introduced the idea in 1984. The concept has a natural appeal that learners are individuals. Ten years later, Alison King reinforced the notion when she advised teachers to stop being the "sage on the stage" and become the "guide on the side."

The assumption is that tailoring education and training to a learner's style will result in improved learning. Does it? A survey shows that 94 percent of teachers believe so. Much research also claims that it does, but controversy abounds. In 2004, University of London education professor Frank Coffield examined 13 models and found that only three measured what they intended and produced consistent results. No overarching model emerged. In 2008, Pashler et al conducted a meta-analysis (analyzing all available studies) and drew three conclusions.

Their first conclusion was that learners do indeed differ from one another. For example, some learners may have more ability, more interest, or more background than their classmates. Second, students do express preferences for how they like information to be presented to them… Third, after a careful analysis of the literature, the researchers found no evidence showing that people do in fact learn better when an instructor tailors their teaching style to mesh with their preferred learning style.

The idea of matching lessons to learning styles may be a fashionable trend that will go out of style itself. In the meantime, what are teachers and trainers to do? My advice is to leave the arguments to the academics. Here are some common-sense guidelines in planning a session of learning.

Follow your instincts. If you're teaching music or speech, for example, wouldn't auditory-based lessons make the most sense? You wouldn’t teach geography with lengthy descriptions of a coastline's contours when simply showing a map would capture the essence in a heartbeat, right?

Since people clearly express learning style preferences, why not train them in their preferred style? If you give them what they want, they'll be much more likely to stay engaged and expand their learning.

When training your team, present material in a variety of formats. Supplement the talk with a slide show. Distribute handouts that team members can touch, notate and take home for reflection. When appropriate, use a tangible supplement, something they can hold, or conduct a group exercise. At worst, a team member might ignore a format or two, but one will click. At best, each format will reinforce the learning of the others in this layered approach.

What materials do you have for your session? If you have a fabulous image, a sticky expression, web-clip, demonstration, or exercise – use it! All learning styles will appreciate and learn when the training tool is of impeccable quality.

Know your audience. Regardless of the learning style that you are trying to appeal to, if your sessions are not matching their existing skill and ability levels, your training won't be effective.

The esoteric questions about learning styles remind me of those about personality types. With both, we know they exist. We just struggle to find the right boxes to package them in. Pay attention to what works. Get feedback. And always be looking to improve.

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11 comments on “Are Learning Styles Going Out of Style?”

  1. It has become more important than ever to know your students and for students to understand how they learn most effectively. Knowing and improving teaching - style may be most important.

    1. Every teacher I spoke with agrees with you Beth - knowing your students' learning style is most important.

  2. I always say I use three "I's" in training - intuitive, integrity, inspiring.
    Intuitive is much like Bruce described here as "follow your instincts."

    What integrity means to me in this context, is that I am willing to learn from everybody in the group, I won't pretend to know something if I don't and I will consider the fact that I'm working with individuals who don't all learn in the same way. So I relate to what he said. "When training your team, present material in a variety of formats. Supplement the talk with a slide show. Distribute handouts that team members can touch, notate and take home for reflection." etc...

    To me "inspiring" means that I want to inspire my learners or delegates to go out and be inspired to learn EVEN MORE of what we did in a workshop or class. In part, that will happen because of interesting presentation, involvement and good quality materials. So once again, I feel Bruce is spot on when he asks, "What materials do you have for your session? If you have a fabulous image, a sticky expression, web-clip, demonstration, or exercise – use it!"

  3. In workplace learning in large orgs it is virtually impossible to know & tailor your learning style to students. More important for people to know *their own* learning styles/preferences & use that to shape their own learning, after all, so little of it happens in a formal setting.

    And as learning facilitators I think "leaving the arguments to academics" is terrible advice! We should be using evidence-based research to help us get the best from people.

  4. Although I agree with the rest of your advice 🙂 Tailor the style to the material, make it varied & engaging.

  5. Everything is well said what remains or what pulls all these beautiful strategies is implementation

  6. The sage on the stage and guide on the side has also expanded to the meddler in the middle , which is a provocative and interesting role. I think the 2008 meta analysis you cite really gives the clearest answer.

  7. I don't think its absolute but, the notion of learning styles gives the teacher an insight into their learner and I for one have seen great benefits from using it with my learners.
    The point is that through inital and formative assessment, teachers develop a better understanding of their learners and use this information to create our profiles. Enabling each learner to contribute to the learning process.

  8. Learning styles have their place, but they are not what you should hang a whole session on. Its about having great resources, blending teaching and learning approaches as well as the appropriate use of technology

    1. Good point there Matt! When designing a training session there are many factors that need to be considered to cater to all styles and approaches. Having a mix in one's approach is usually best.

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