Mythbuster… are learning styles actually helpful for extension?

In this blog post we’re doing our third mythbusters session! Let’s not just accept something because it’s been said so many times that most people believe it. We are going to delve deeper and explore the facts, taking an evidence-based approach. So, let’s explore… learning styles, and see whether they are actually helpful for extension! Because if they are, then as enablers of change we will want to better understand people’s learning styles to help us deliver more effective extension activities. 

You may have come across the idea of learning styles a while ago. They tend to be used in a range of training situations to explain why people learn differently. They kind of make instinctive sense – people are different and it makes sense that that would learn differently.

The learning styles that are commonly used have three categories – visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. This is often abbreviated as VAK. Visual learners are people who tend to learn better when given information in pictures, charts or diagrams. Auditory learners are people who learn better when they listen to a lecturer, a podcast or similar. And finally kinesthetic learners are those who learn by doing, that is, the hands on people. 

It all sounds quite plausible and reasonable, but the trouble is, there is no actual evidence for learning styles. None! And there have been a lot of reviews on this, trying to find some link between effective learning and learning styles. And so far, there is not a single one!

Now we are not saying that people are all the same. There are differences in people, for example, some people are better at remembering things said, and other people do remember more things when you show them something. But this is not evidence for effective learning.

What learning research tells us is that in order to retain information, we have to organise it in a way that is meaningful. That is, most of what we learn is connected to meaning, not a particular sensory mode. 

In fact, one researcher, Daniel Willingham, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, says that differences in people’s approach to learning, interpreted as different learning styles, are actually differences in ability. These differences are not learning styles though. He says “Ability is that you can do something. Style is how you do it.” And there is not any evidence that style has a significant impact on learning. As one article (Wired 2015) put it: “the more accurate predictor for how well a person will fare in a math learning task, is most likely not the degree of match between their preferred learning style and the teaching style, but their past performance on math tests.” 

But we again, we are not saying that everyone should be treated the same! People are different, for example some people are more extraverted than others. And there is good research out there that highlights what does actually help people learn. Cathy Moore, an international training designer, says we would get better results by helping learners structure their learning and gauge their progress, and offering them contextual feedback and reinforcement for gaps.

So following up on that, what does help people learn? Here are a few things to get you thinking, and maybe we will do another episode on this later because there is quite a bit of research out there!

One thing is spaced practice. We forget things quickly. The best way for not forgetting? Practicing at intervals over time! That might initially be a few times a day, then every second day, and then maybe weekly or monthly. 

Another thing is chunking. Chunking means understanding that working memory is a limited resource. Break things into small bits! Less is more when it comes to learning! 

There are a few more good tips for learning in the research – so we’re definitely going to do a blog post on this!

And a quick tip for what to avoid (apart from learning styles!) – cognitive overload. Most people try to help people learn too much, too quickly without engaging them in an appropriate context. Cognitive overload kills learning!

So the next time you hear someone talking about learning styles, remember that scientific support for these theories is lacking! We all want a silver bullet and be able to enable change, but learning and change are not as simple as learning styles might imply! 

We are conscious this idea of learning styles is ubiquitous and we may have ruffled some feathers. So tell us how you feel about this by adding a comment below this post! 

Thanks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new posts are available. 

Resources 

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004), Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review, LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London download report

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315589505

Danial Willingham FAQs: 

http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html 

A good overview of the resources on why learning styles are not an effective way of increasing learning: https://debunker.club/2015/05/22/learning-styles-are-not-an-effective-guide-for-learning-design/

A great TEDx talk by Tesia Marshik: https://youtu.be/855Now8h5Rs

Cathy Moore’s blog: https://blog.cathy-moore.com/

Wired 2015 article: https://www.wired.com/2015/01/need-know-learning-styles-myth-two-minutes/

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Adrian Englefield
Adrian Englefield
14 days ago

Hello John
Great video and certainly raises a few thought-provoking ideas. I personally enjoy self-guided learning (is this technically a learning style?), it helps me make a meaningful interpretation of the information compared to my experiences. However, mentoring or feedback is important.

I’m very interested to hear about broader andragogy considerations and the role extension can play, especially to a diverse audience.

Thanks

Ross Carruthers
Ross Carruthers
12 days ago

John, in the early 1990s we ran annual workshops for water bore drillers called Drillfest. Training from the Rural Extension Centre in Gatton at that time emphasised the learning styles theory and we ran the workshops accordingly providing a mix of oral presentations, practical demonstrations and short courses to meet the different learning styles that we thought drillers might have. The drillers responded well to this approach with proven relationship building, knowledge / skills improvement and practice change Now whether the approach we used was successful because of meeting different learning styles or meeting the needs of different skill levels… Read more »

David Jago
7 days ago

Great post!

And yes, the classic learning styles idea is not supported in the literature. Conversely, we all have have experiences which support it. Even if those experiences count as anecdotal in the literature!

Some of the research is not that good either. Sigh! I read one paper which had a basic flaw which is well illustrated in the attached image…

Conversely, Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences is very strong. It has significantly informed and improved my work as a group facilitator and facilitative leadership trainer.

learning style assessments.png