The Myth of Learning Styles

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Introduction

At the risk of writing about what’s already been discussed many times, this post is about the myth of learning styles. Despite all of the evidence and documentation to the contrary, the myth of learning styles seems to show-up like those hangers-on at work who appear from nowhere when lunch is “on me.” And often we hear people toss the idea out, like just by saying “learning style” their solution design somehow magically carries an impervious charm, rendering constructive feedback useless, like the inert remains of some magical spell. It’s like all of those masters of education degrees earned at the crucible of science and logic are sacrificed at some alter of habit and half-baked ideas. It’s time to finally dispel the myth and its unfortunate negative consequences on learning and performance.

[IL]Logic of Learning Styles

Without citing any other sources yet, let’s consider the logic, or lack of logic, at play when trying to design a training intervention for learning styles. Here’s a scenario – your executive has tasked you to create something to change the behavior of managers so that they’re less risk-adverse and instead are open to innovative ideas generated by their team. As part of the solution, let’s say you decide that a message from the company CEO about how times have changed and innovation is becoming the life-line on which companies must cling for survival is a great introduction. And included in this message are a couple of recent examples of this new behavior – a bias for action – that the CEO is looking for.

If you truly buy-in to the learning styles hypothesis, you might decide you need the following:

  • A video of the CEO – satisfying the visually predisposed learners.
  • Subtitles for the video, a verbatim transcript of what’s being verbally explained by the CEO – to satisfy the reading learning stylized learners.
  • Compelling background music track in the video – to engage the auditory learners.
  • And for the kinesthetic learners, … (what do we do for the poor kinesthetic learners?!) maybe some gimmick multiple guess survey at the end, or a puzzle they can assemble that when assembled reveals salient phrases from the video.

Or, you could just acknowledge that the elements above (except for maybe the multiple guess assessment) are all components of a half-decent info cast anyway. Ultimately, it demonstrates the pervading lack of self-confidence in the L&D industry by justifying an approach with an outdated and disproven, but commonly accepted invalidated hypothesis.

Tesia Marshik, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse has said that people still believe the myth for a few reasons. Apparently up to 90% of students and teachers still believe that learning styles exist, but Marshik explains that even when learning is customized for perceived styles, the quality and results do not improve (Marshik, 2015).

Information is not a sensory mode – but it is stored as a meaning or concept. IN 1973, a study was conducted using master and novice chess players. The assumption was that master chess players would favor visual learning because they can remember where chess pieces should be during a chess match.

They tested the theory in two ways: First, they arranged a chess board to mimic the logical progress of a chess match. After viewing the board, they then asked both chess masters and novices recreate the placement of the pieces on a different board. The chess masters could, very frequently and accurately, recreate the placement of the pieces but the novices could not. With those results only, one might assume that chess masters are visual learners.

However, they then conducted a second experiment. The experimenters place chess pieces randomly on a board – with no logic in the progression of a match. Chess masters and novices remembered the placement in this situation with the same level of accuracy. (Ericsson, 1996)

The conclusion is that information is stored in context with meaning, and without those connections, the modality of instruction is meaningless. Many tests besides this one have been performed over the last 40 years, showing that while people do have learning preferences (for example, some people prefer to read and others prefer to watch TV), the actual way in which information is consumed is only important in the context of the information itself – not in anyone’s preferred learning style.

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And Now for the Actual Science

In his TED talk from November, 2014, Ben Ambridge said that multiple studies have shown that learning style preference has no impact on the level or quality of learning. He goes on to explain that the instructional modality should be dependent on one primary thing: the content itself. He says “It’s obvious that the best presentation format depends not on you, but on what you’re trying to learn” (Ambridge, 2014). Ambridge goes on to cite examples that demonstrate his point, like trying to learn how to drive a car just by listening to someone explain how to drive and study for an architecture test by using interpretive dance (Wallace, Eppic).

In his presentation at the 2015 Virtual Learning summit, Will Thalheimer cited a number of surveys showing that “science has proven, the learning-styles approach is not effective” for either learning design or design methodology. He explains that from 1978 to 2015 there have been many studies proving that there is no evidence supporting the theory of learning styles (Thalheimer, 2015).

Why does the myth persist?

The next question I ask is “why does the learning styles myth persist?” And the answer is simple: because everyone believes it and humans tend to listen to information that confirms their biases. We often work hard to look for information that fits our beliefs, instead of letting the information indicate what our beliefs should be. Often we seek for information that supports our own conclusions but just because something is commonly believed doesn’t make it true. Take for example things that people used to believe that have since been found to be false:

  • Earth the center of the earth.
  • Polio caused by ice cream.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

Quoting Sigmund Tobias (a professor of education currently at the University at Albany:

“I can only conclude that they adhere to what Jeanne Chall (2000) in her last book called a romantic, as opposed to rational, view of education. Chall cites other romantic notions that have little verified empirical support such as the whole-language approach to reading instruction, open education, and discovery learning, to name only a few. Sometimes an idea may appear so logical, and/or so deeply related to the values held by individuals, that it becomes an article of faith. Believers cling to their fancies irrespective of research findings. I wish they would develop a similar fixation about the Brooklyn Bridge, because I would love to sell it to them again and again” (Wallace, Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners?, 2011).

In addition to this romantic view of education, it may also be that L&D professionals tend to demonstrate a lack of confidence in their own profession and overcompensate by repeating mantras of things like Adult Learning theory, single-source multi-modal output reusability, ROI, and learning styles as a way to artificially elevate their function in an enterprise above business managers. Perhaps though, in reality, it would make more sense to focus on the success of individuals, their actual performance and how that ties into organizational goals and business targets instead.

The only basis for learning styles might, at best, be the concept that learning styles might inform the field in which a person decides to enter as a student or professional (Kamradt & Kamradt, 1999) or that “it might be more useful to figure out similarities in how our brains learn, rather than differences” (Neighmond, 2011).

Conclusion: The Dangers of Learning Styles

Not only is it bad form and pseudo-scientific to adhere to the theory of learning styles, but there are real dangers when we try to develop learning solutions that cater to learning styles.

First, at best it becomes too complicated – we end up developing multiple modes of training for each concept. At worst, we tout the virtues of learning styles, but then fall short when we’re faced with the reality of actually designing and developing learning solutions. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, or clients, and the training participants and lose credibility and trust at the same time.

Second, we set learners up with a go-to excuse for not learning. They can claim that their preferred learning style wasn’t used, therefore it was impossible for them to learn and perform at the required level. And to that, how can we respond? Especially if we’ve explained the importance of considering learning styles.

Finally, it sets a pattern of using pop-psychology as the basis for the fundamental learning theories we employ. It becomes a demoralizing practice of professional deception that is bad for the credibility of everyone in the L&D industry.

 

References

Ambridge, B. (2014, November). 10 Myths about psychology, debunked. Retrieved from TED: https://www.ted.com/talks/ben_ambridge_10_myths_about_psychology_debunked?language=en

Cedar Riener, D. W. (2010, September 8). The Myth of Learning Styles. Retrieved from Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning: http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

Ericsson, A. (1996). Superior Memory of Experts and Long-Term Working Memory. Retrieved from FSU Psychology: https://psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.mem.exp.html

Jarrett, C. (2015, January 10). All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes. Retrieved from Wired: http://www.wired.com/2015/01/need-know-learning-styles-myth-two-minutes/

Kamradt, B., & Kamradt, T. (1999). Structured Design for Attitudinal Instruction. In C. Reigeluth, Instructional-Design Theories and Models (pp. 571 – 572). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Marshik, T. (2015, April 2). Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection. Retrieved from youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=855Now8h5Rs

Moore, C. (2015, June 9). How to respond to learning-style believers. Retrieved from Let’s Save The World From Boring Training: http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2015/06/how-to-respond-to-learning-style-believers/

Neighmond, P. (2011, August 29). Think You’re An Auditory Or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely. Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2011/08/29/139973743/think-youre-an-auditory-or-visual-learner-scientists-say-its-unlikely

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010, September 8). The Myth of Learning Styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, pp. 32 – 35.

Thalheimer, W. (2015). Today’s Most Dangerous Learning Myths. Virtual Learning Summit (pp. 12 – 24). 2eLearning.com.

Wallace, G. (2011, November). Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners? Retrieved from eLearn Magazine: http://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2070611

Wallace, G. (2011, November). Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners? Retrieved from eLearn Magazine: http://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2070611

Wallace, G. (n.d.). Eppic. Retrieved from Foo Foo About: Designing Instruction for Learning Styles Differences: http://eppic.biz/foo-foo-about-designing-instruction-for-learning-styles-differences/

Winter, T. (2015, July 1). L&D Neuromyth: Learning Styles (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic). Retrieved from ATD: https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Science-of-Learning-Blog/2015/07/LD-Neuromyth-Learning-Styles

Additional Resources

Test your ability to differentiate between real science and bad science: http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/bad-science-quiz.htm?mkcpgn=i500000008&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hswaccount.

Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners? http://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2070611

How to respond to learning-style believers: http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2015/06/how-to-respond-to-learning-style-believers/

L&D Neuromyth: Learning Styles (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic): https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Science-of-Learning-Blog/2015/07/LD-Neuromyth-Learning-Styles

All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes: http://www.wired.com/2015/01/need-know-learning-styles-myth-two-minutes/

The Myth of Learning Styles: http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

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