The majority of educators build their teaching sessions on the belief that each of us exhibits a learning style – our own preferred way to absorb, process, comprehend and retain information – and that once that ‘style’ is identified training can be tailored to produce better outcomes.
But is this concept rooted in reality or is it simply a persistent myth – and if so, what should we be doing instead? SoGlos spoke to Gloucestershire-based online learning experts, Nimble Elearning, to understand the research behind the methodology and reveal its surprising conclusion.
Can you explain the thinking around learning styles and how influential this is?
There are certainly plenty of theories to choose from; one review found over 70 models! Each one has its own band of followers and some are more well-known than others. The important question is, can they demonstrate an impact on learning?
That’s a lot of models! Can you introduce us to one or two of the popular ones?
One of the most well-known is VARK – which stands for visual, aural, read/write or kinesthetic – and was first proposed by Neil Fleming in 1984. This theory states that everyone has a way of learning that works best for them.
Visual learners take in more information from pictures or video; aural learners prefer to listen to the material to be learnt; read/write learners find that studying a text and making notes is helpful for them; while kinesthetic learners thrive when carrying out practical, physical tasks.
How dominant has this theory been on training?
Many practitioners have been encouraged to cover all the VARK bases when they provide training and one study from 2012 found that 83 per cent of teachers believed that learning was more effective when it matched a student’s learning style.
So, it is widely accepted. Does that mean the research backs up the theory?
The research into VARK is mixed, but the consensus is pretty clear: matching information to a learner’s preferred style doesn’t improve their learning outcome.
Mixing up the way you present information can help to keep learners engaged, however!
Are there any other popular theories?
There is Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory. David Kolb also published his model in 1984. He proposed two elements: first, a learning cycle in four stages, where we move from concrete experience to abstract concepts and finally apply what we’ve learned. The second part of his model centres on four learning styles.
What are they?
Divergers prefer to watch, listen and gather information; assimilators are focused on ideas, concepts and logic; convergers are great at finding practical solutions to technical problems; and accommodators prefer to trust their gut and get hands-on with carrying out a plan rather than spend time analysing.
These are all basically approaches to learning depending on what combination of doing, feeling, thinking and watching we prefer. It’s a touch complicated!
Is there any evidence that this approach works better?
One study by Henson and Hwang in 2002 found that people’s learning style, as measured by Kolb’s Inventory, wasn’t even reliably the same across multiple tests – meaning that you could be a diverger one day and an accommodator the next.
Another study by Toyama and Yamazaki in 2019 had two groups of learners: one where their learning style was matched by the teaching style, and the other where there was a mismatch. Both groups showed similar results in motivation and success – suggesting that perhaps the style didn’t matter much after all.
What other theories will trainers use?
This is a very familiar one for those of us working in HR or management. Honey and Mumford built upon Kolb’s theory and designed a questionnaire to find out about people’s behaviours and attitudes.
They propose that we all fall into four main categories of learning styles.
And those styles are?
Activists like to learn by doing; theorists want to understand the information and concepts behind what they’re learning; pragmatists want to get on with it; and reflectors learn best by observing and thinking.
Dare we ask what the evidence for this one is?
While it can certainly be useful for us to reflect on our own preferences at work and when learning new things, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that pragmatists learn better through problem solving, or that theorists learn better from statistics.
Is there a lack of evidence for all of the popular learning styles theories?
There is Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Howard Gardner suggests that we all have several kinds of intelligence and strengths and weaknesses across a whole spectrum; our true potential can’t simply be measured using an IQ test.
But again, there’s no firm evidence to suggest that measuring people’s multiple intelligences can give us clues about how to present information to maximise their learning.
Are there any learning style theories that are reliable?
In short, the notion that we each have a preferred learning style – and that information presented to us in that format sticks better – just isn’t backed up by evidence.
People certainly have learning preferences and they may well be happier about taking part in training that aligns with these, but put simply, they won’t learn more while they’re doing it.
With businesses needing effective training, perhaps now more than ever, are there any positives to the learning styles debate?
Yes. It’s certainly not a bad idea to mix up your training offering to make it visually engaging, interesting and relevant – and if thinking about appealing to different senses or personality types helps you, then go for it.
One thing that research does support is adapting your method of delivery to match the type of content. This can definitely have a positive impact on learning.
A sophisticated simulation is the best way to train an astronaut, but is unlikely to be necessary if you’re hoping to learn the finer points of GDPR.
What advice would you give to businesses on how to provide effective training to their employees?
Fundamentally, if you want to make a positive impact in the workplace, the science suggests that learning styles theories won’t help you achieve that impact.
Perhaps the most impactful way to achieve a positive impact on your employee’s learning is creating interesting and structured content in a simple and fast way that helps all learners understand and retain the learning they’re undertaking.