Why You Should Forget Learning Styles

Sometimes the field of education and learning – fuelled by the businesses behind it – may take unwanted turns that end up having long lasting consequences. When it comes to learning as a science, there’s quite a bit of information out there. Most of its good; research- and evidence-based information about learning that we as corporate learning professionals can leverage. However, occasionally you end up with the bad apple. One of the most profound bad apples in the learning space within the past years is the concept of learning styles.

Now we are all familiar with the theorem. People have different preferences for learning (e.g. visual, verbal etc.) and by catering to those, we can improve learning results. Sounds logical doesn’t it? It may, yes. Unfortunately, the idea is totally false (if you don’t take our word for it, here’s a rather recent well-written piece).

Learning styles and preferences have been researched extensively over the past decades. No reputable and well-designed research has been able to prove that there’s a positive correlation between catering to one’s learning style preferences and learning results. In simple terms: “learning styles” don’t work. As a matter of fact, they don’t even exist.

Or actually, they do for some entities, and that’s a problem. Several organisations have adopted the concept of learning styles. They’ve developed big businesses on “assessing your learning style” and then catering to those self-reported preferences. The approach has not been proven to work in a properly designed and repeatable review. Yet, it’s easy to sell and make money with, because we intuitively buy into the idea. It sounds logical, and it also helps to shift the blame to something else (“oh it wasn’t really the right style of learning for me, that’s why it didn’t work…”).

What should organisations do then?

Corporate learning & development is a field that tends to easily pursue fads, as long as they’re presented by a perceived authority. Compared to the education field, there may not be qualified educational and pedagogical experts even working within the function. And if there are, they might have been even taught myths like learning styles as a “truth” over the course of their formal education (e.g. qualification on instructional design or training). Whatever the case, you will be wasting a lot of resources in assessments and design efforts that won’t pay off if you take up on this myth.

Thus, you should be very cautious if you hear someone in your organisation talking about learning styles. Furthermore, hearing that from a vendor or a service provider should be a major red flag. It does strongly indicate that they haven’t really done their research. Or alternatively, they’re knowingly selling falsehoods. If you want to make an impact with your learning, you should focus on evidence-based methods. Looking into cognitive science in learning and its findings on e.g. multi-modality may also prove helpful. But the important thing is to forget the learning styles nonsense right away.

If you’d like to discuss learning strategies with real impact, feel free to contact us. We advise organisations on organisational learning and help to transform L&D into the digital age. You can contact us here.

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