Should You Design for Learning Styles?

Should You Design for Learning Styles?

A common belief among training professionals is that learners vary in their learning preferences i.e., “learning styles”. Hence, an effective training should be designed for those different learning styles.

Is there any proven evidence that designing for learning styles brings better results, or would the research prove us wrong?

Most researchers agree that people have different preferences as to how they consume information and how they study. In that case, this discussion will not revolve around the validity of learning styles per se. Instead, it will focus on the effectiveness of learning solutions designed for different styles of learning.

The Common Premise of Designing for Learning Styles

During the last three decades, with the advancements in neuroscience came a few scientific papers on the subject of multiple learning styles and multiple intelligences. Consequently, this notion became popularized trend in corporate training, and a substantial industry has emerged to help organizations apply these principles.

The advocates of designing for learning styles make three fundamental claims:

  1. Learners differ from one another with their cognitive abilities and interests.
  2. Learners have preferred modes of acquiring new information. These modes are often presented as continua such as impulsive vs. reflective, visual vs. auditory, linear vs. holistic, or reasoning vs. insight.
  3. The final claim is that the effectiveness of our training will increase if we somehow match our teaching method to the learner’s particular style of learning.
“Clearly I’m not a visual learner” [photo by  kyle smith]

What Does the Science Tell Us?

In 2008, a ”dream team” of America’s top four cognitive researchers – Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, conducted a meta-analysis of the learning styles literature of the past three decades. After completing the analysis, the team came up with three general and noteworthy conclusions.

  • In any given classroom, learners do indeed differ from one another. For example, some learners may have more ability, more interest, or more background than their classmates.
  • Students do express preferences for how they like information to be presented to them. For example, some people say they prefer information presented visually whereas others say they prefer an auditory presentation.
  • The researchers found no evidence proving that people do learn better when an instructor tailors their teaching style to mesh with a student’s preferred style of learning.
    In other words, although learners say they prefer to learn a certain way, it doesn’t mean that they actually learn better when presented with their favorite learning style.

Now you probably wonder…

How Did Such A False Belief Become So Widely-held?

Well, Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, had a lot to say about it in his 2014 paper called Neuroscience and Education: Myths and Messages.
In essence, Howard-Jones argues that false beliefs are not formed as a result of fraud, but of  “uninformed interpretations of genuine scientific facts.” Neuro-myths arise partly due to the technical language barrier that makes understanding of neuroscience papers difficult for non-experts, and due to oversimplification of complicated scientific ideas. These myths are then “promoted by victims of their own wishful thinking” who are sincere but deluded in their belief that some eccentric theory will “revolutionize science and society,” he writes.

Frank Coffield, a professor of education at Newcastle University, who headed similar research on behalf of the Learning and Skills Development Agency in 2004, also did not spare words about the matter. Following the study, he told The Guardian: “You find you have four different types of learners in the classroom and you match your teaching accordingly, but our research indicates that there’s as much evidence to show that matching teaching and learning styles don’t work as to show that it does.” It seems, argues Coffield, that many people simply want to believe in learning myths. Low-cost and easily implemented classroom approaches can certainly cultivate wishfulness amongst educators, especially if they are fun and therefore likely to be well received by students.


So What Can We Learn From All of This?

Although meshing teaching to specific learning styles has not proven to improve our training programs, there are still a few valuable lessons we can take away from here.

1. Use Your Own Judgement

The first lesson I would take away as a training professional is not to get blinded by every new shiny trend that promises the next silver bullet based on some latest neuroscience research. Beware of your confirmation bias – your natural tendency to find evidence that confirms what you already believe to be true, while ignoring all the mountain of evidence against that belief. Warren Buffet is often quoted to say that “A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought”. I’m all in for innovation, especially when it comes to improving our abilities both as learners and training professionals. However, it’s your job to apply some form of critical thinking to common conceptions.
Have you come across an interesting idea or trend that might be useful in your organization? Great!
But before you jump in and embrace it, make sure to dig deeper and find enough convincing evidence that this idea is worth pursuing.

2. Get to know your audience

People do indeed differ from each other in important ways, and research does support the idea that you should customize your training to be consistent both with (a) people’s intellectual ability and (b) with the particular interests of your audience. For example, if you are teaching effective leadership to a group of millennials, you will increase the probability of getting your messages across if you will use vocabulary that is within their reach. You also want use examples that are relevant to their lives and may peek their interest.

3. Proper Training Is Good for Everyone

Great examples and activities are useful to everyone no matter what learning style they say they prefer. For example, do you have a great visual example? Use it because it is going to benefit everyone whether they say they prefer visual, auditory, or tactile style of teaching. Do you have a demonstration that makes a point dramatically and directly? Use it, and everyone will gain from it. Get the idea? Good teaching produces good learning across all learners.

To conclude, I still believe the term “learning style” should not be dismissed entirely in our approach to designing effective learning experiences. To gain maximum altitude, learners beset by frustration or apprehension should have access to multiple ways of acquiring the material. Instructors should use approaches when possible, but they shouldn’t mistake the need to use different learning methodologies with the need to appeal to different learning styles.

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