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Is Appealing to Learning Styles Malpractice?


Thu Mar 17 2016

Is Appealing to Learning Styles Malpractice?

In an effort to maximize learner connectedness, L&D professionals bring a variety of tools and opportunities to the learning design. Staying current on recent research about design best practices can help developers refine their methods. But one instructional design tool under fire over the last decade is the use of learning styles. In fact, recent science suggests that using learning styles as a development technique is dubious science at best.  

What the Science Says About Learning Styles 


The consensus is resounding. Will Thalheimer fired one of the opening salvos in 2006. He challenged learning styles proponents to prove that appealing to learning styles produced any meaningful benefit. (He even offered a cash award!) This was followed by a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that reported an exhaustive study from Harold Pashler et. al, which concluded that learners do express preferences and bring different thinking, processing, and aptitudes to their consumption of new material. But the study found no causal evidence exists to validate the usefulness learning styles applications. 

If Pashler’s research is not enough to dissuade the unmoved, one merely navigate Constandi’s 2013 “The Myth of Learning Styles.” Or consider the 2010 meta-analysis by Riener and Willingham, which agrees that learners do hold preferences about what appeals to them. Rather, the authors recommend, “Do not use the theory of learning styles, as it is unsupported by empirical evidence.” 

Lastly, L&D pros can renew and reprioritize our instructional choices based on the newest brain science, which reemphasize the importance of creating ownership of content by stimulating interpretations of new information through personal experience—providing opportunities for deep, emotional connections, as well as employing distributive, spaced learning. All of which is presumed to deepen learning impact. Posts by Margie Meacham and Theo Winter in the Science of Learning community continue to use research and neuroscience to debunk the “Learning Style Myth.” 

How L&D Professionals Should Respond 

At the very least (even if the research is inconclusive), the L&D community has an ethical and moral obligation to refrain from suggesting that learning style theory and practice actually makes a difference. Anecdotal evidence, personal beliefs, or perceptions that lack research rigor are not valid substitutes for thorough investigation. In scientific thought, we can have an abundance of supportive evidence collected, yet only one rebuttal is sufficient to rethink previously held convictions, systems, and techniques that indoctrinate spurious practice. 

No doubt, many will cling to incorrect inferences and, forgivably, the mind’s fallible tendency to perceive connections where there are none. As Guy Wallace aptly admonishes, the persistence to cling to a myth is “a testament to the gullibility of even well-informed individuals who ought to know better.” 


Given what we currently know about the spectrum of learners’ capabilities, and since boredom in the learning environment is inversely related to learners being engaged, where should designers turn their attention? Perhaps, we might start by reimaging what we mean by “style.” 

The term “style” remains a useful superordinate descriptor for instructor effectiveness, though. That is, style can describe one’s penchant for not just pulling some gimmick off-the-shelf, but actually thinking about and adding in creative and interesting learning opportunities based on the situation and individual contexts. If, however, we continue to argue that appealing to learning styles somehow increases the learners’ odds of incorporating new information or mastering tasks, we position the industry in pseudo-scientific design. 

Bottom line: To gain maximum altitude, learners beset by frustration or apprehension should have access to multiple ways to acquire new material. In other words, instructors should design differentiated approaches when possible. But they shouldn’t mistake the need to use different learning methodologies with the need to appeal to different learning styles. 

Part 2 of this blog series will look at how best to employ both the art and science of facilitating learning. Stay tuned.

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