Do learning styles really matter?
Does adapting your training approach for different learning styles actually make things better? Not according to 30 educational experts who wrote a letter to the UK’s Guardian newspaper last week. David Sharp considers the facts.
Last week saw the publication of a letter in the UK’s Guardian newspaper written by 30 educational experts, in which they called the practice of teaching to different learning styles a “neuromyth”, effectively labelling it a waste of time. While the experts were talking about teaching in schools, there are obvious lessons for learning and development professionals in the workplace.
So, are they right? First, the theory.
L&D practitioners will be familiar with different learning styles models, with Kolb (1984) and Honey and Mumford (1992) perhaps the best known. The authors of the Guardian letter refers to research suggesting there are up to 70 different learning styles models in existence!
All of them take account of the fact that people learn best in a combination of different ways, and by understanding which methods are the best stimuli for different people, it’s possible to loosely group them into three or four (or even up to seven!) different learning styles and adapt your training to get the best results.
Arguably the most common method – and the one used by use here at International Workplace – is the ‘VAK’ model, which considers Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (movement) to be the three main sensory receivers which determine our dominant learning style.
People tend to use all three to receive and learn new information and experiences, but the theory goes that one or two of the styles is normally dominant and dictates how we like to learn. This dominant style defines the best way for a person to learn new information by filtering what is to be learned. It may not always be the same for all tasks, as a person may prefer one style of learning for one task, and a combination of others for something else, however there is often a prevailing learning style.
Classically, our learning style is forced upon us throughout different periods in our lives. During early schooling, new information is presented to us kinesthetically, whereas throughout secondary school information is presented visually. In college and in the business environment, information is presented to us mostly through auditory means, such as lectures and verbal instructions.
Here is how the three groups differ from each other.
Visual learners have two sub-channels: linguistic and spatial. Learners who are visual-linguistic like to learn through written language, such as reading and writing tasks. They remember what has been written down, even if they do not read it more than once.
They like to write down directions and pay better attention to lectures if they watch them. Learners who are visual-spatial usually have difficulty with the written language and do better with charts, demonstrations, videos, and other visual materials. They easily visualise faces and places by using their imagination, and seldom get lost in new surroundings.
Visual learners benefit from:
- using graphs, charts, illustrations, or other visual aids;
- outlines, agendas, handouts, etc. for reading and taking notes;
- white space in handouts for note-taking;
- key points being used to emphasise when to take notes;
- textual information being supplemented with illustrations whenever possible; and
- acting out the subject matter.
Auditory learners often talk to themselves and may also move their lips and read out loud. They may have difficulty with reading and writing tasks. They often do better talking to a colleague or a tape recorder and hearing what was said.
Auditory learners benefit from:
- having new material bookended by a brief explanation of what is coming, and a summary of what has been covered. This is the old adage of ‘tell them what they are going to learn, teach them, and tell them what they have learned’;
- auditory activities, such as brainstorming or buzz groups, with plenty of time for debrief activities, allowing them to make connections between what they learned and how it applies to their situation; and
- verbalising the questions themselves.
Kinesthetic learners do best while touching and moving. This learning style also has two sub-channels: kinesthetic (movement) and tactile (touch). They tend to lose concentration if there is little or no external stimulation or movement.
When listening to lectures they may want to take notes for the sake of moving their hands. When reading, they like to scan the material first, and then focus in on the details (get the big picture first). They typically use colour highlighters and take notes by drawing pictures, diagrams, or doodling.
Kinesthetic learners benefit from:
- activities that get them up and moving;
- the use of music, when appropriate, during activities;
- the use of coloured pens to emphasise key points on flip charts or white boards;
- frequent stretch breaks (brain breaks);
- having toys such as Koosh balls and Play-Doh to give them something to do with their hands;
- visualisation of complex tasks; and
- transferring information from text to another medium such as a keyboard or a tablet.
Are learning styles relevant?
Despite wide adoption of learning styles models in the L&D community, the authors of the Guardian letter are damning of their value, noting:
“… there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.”
Are learning styles relevant? As a professional training provider, our view is that we should try and take different people’s learning styles into account when planning and delivering training. It would seem crazy to ignore received wisdom, especially where we are investing significantly in eLearning which requires a considerable amount of effort being put into making the experience interactive and compensating for some of the emotional and sensory stimulation that can only be delivered face-to-face.
Where school-age education is concerned however, Heidi Thompson, International Workplace’s Head of Learning and Development, agrees with the criticism being levelled by the academics.
“I agree its unhelpful to put people in one category or another, particularly children, as the danger is that it can lead to them believing they can only learn in that one way.
“For me it's more about learning preference than style, and we are likely to respond better to one or more styles over another. As such in the classroom if you provide a variety of methods it retains interest and can certainly aid learning. At International Workplace our lessons are based around this variety and we find it works positively with our learners.
“What I think is important is that whilst we may have a preference, we still need to learn to learn in different ways. The workplace requires employees with flexible and adaptive skills. As such to be successful we cannot restrict ourselves in this way. It's also not plausible for a company to tailor learning to this degree.
“For that reason in education it's important for children to be exposed to all methods. It’s not helpful for them in later life to just be offered what they prefer and confidence comes from knowing we aren't restricted but can learn to learn in many ways.”