Learning Styles: Saying Goodbye to a Shibboleth of Instructional Design

If you gave a prize for the most intuitively appealing idea in education, it would probably go to the theory of “learning styles.” The gist of the theory is simple: it asserts that each person has a mode of delivery through which they learn most effectively—a standard taxonomy of such modes is “verbal,” “visual,” “kinesthetic,” “auditory,” and “logical,” but there are several variants—and this preferred mode, or style, of learning is different for different people.

Surveys have shown that, as of a few years ago, well over 90% of teachers and other learning professionals believed in this theory. I think that there are two main reasons for its popularity. One is that we can see for ourselves that different people have different levels of ability when it comes to processing language, images, movement, and sound, so it seems reasonable to suppose that individuals would learn best from input in the modality with which they are most facile. The other is that we all tend to feel good about theories that emphasize individual differences. No one wants to be the kind of soulless technocrat who insists that “one size fits all.”

As you’d expect, a lot of research has been done over the years to study the impact of learning styles. The science is now in, and the results are frankly surprising: it turns out that there is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. In experiment after experiment, teaching learners in their ostensibly preferred mode has been shown to provide little or no advantage, an outcome that is all the more surprising for the fact that many of those who have researched the topic were frankly advocates of the theory. (See here and here for a comprehensive discussion the result and what it means, and here for a more detailed review of the evidence). The theory of learning styles is wrong, at least in anything like its common formulation.

Many people will react to this by asking how a theory that is plausible to the point of being almost tautological (“people learn best in the mode in which their brain functions best”) could possibly be wrong. Neuropsychologist Daniel Willingham gives an insightful answer to that question: it turns out that people learn best in the mode that is most suited to the content, rather than the mode that is most suited to the learner. No matter what your preferred mode of input is, you will probably do better learning how to shoot a basketball in a kinesthetic mode, how to tell a Rembrandt from a Van Dijk in a visual mode, and how to decode Joyce’s metaphors in a verbal mode. So, in practice, any learning styles-based effect that might be present will generally be swamped by the impact of how well, or how poorly, the mode of delivery suits the material.

What does all this mean to you as a learning designer? Well, clearly, if you have been in the habit of creating learning activities in certain modes solely in order to cater to learners with particular learning styles, you should stop. If you included a choreographed dance in your lesson on mitosis in order to help the kinesthetic learners in the class get the concept, it’s probably time to ditch that. Although, come to think of it, this might well be more effective than the usual approach, if only because students would be less likely to sleep through it, so on second thought, maybe keep it. Just don’t justify it on the grounds of learning styles.

Most instructional designers never went so far as to create activities like a DNA dance, however; if you are like most of us, the theory has at most spurred you to put some extra effort into ensuring that your lessons include pictures, words and sound. Learning styles or no, that’s not a bad thing, necessarily: there’s reason to believe that a multi-modal approach is good for everyone. So, if you’ve created some really dumb content in the name of learning styles, you can kill it off without guilt. Other than that, you may not need to change anything you are doing.

You will need to change how you talk about it, though. In the wake of the theory’s demise, we can dare to hope that the formulaic inclusion of clichéd references to learning styles in every instructional design presentation will now cease. I don’t know about you, but that makes me very happy.

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