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Stop Wasting Resources on Learning Styles

Monday, May 21, 2012

Perhaps one of the more charismatic and unproductive investments made by the education community over the past 20 or so years has been on learning styles. If you total the expenditures on books, workshops, tests, teacher guides and other adjunct resources, I suspect the investment goes into the millions. So, what return has the learning community realized?

The idea of learning styles is so seductive because we all have intuitions or preferences regarding how we learn best. And it seems so straightforward that a learner with a visual learning style would learn best from a more visual presentation compared to a person with a kinesthetic style who would benefit from a more hands-on experience. As logical as it seems, we simply don’t have evidence to support it.

No Evidence for Learning Styles

First, there are a number of different learning styles. I focus this blog on the very popular idea of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles. Recently, Kratzig and Arbuthnott (2006) compared meausres of these three learning styles among 65 participants. Each individual rated their own learning style as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Then each individual completed the Barsch 24-item learning style inventory, which reports a score for each modality. Third, each individual completed a memory test including (1) reconstructing a briefly shown drawing, (2) recounting a short story read aloud, and (3) identifying different geometric shapes that the subjects had previously felt while blindfolded.

All scores were correlated. According to the learning styles idea, if you identify your style as visual, you would score higher on the visual scale of the Barsch inventory and would show better memory results on the visual test than on the auditory or kinesthetic tests. What were the correlations? Zilch. The research team concludes, “The results of this study raise serious doubts about learning style specificity and instead support the idea that each individual uses a combination of different learning modalities to learn effectively.” (p. 242)


Instead of Learning Styles…

Let’s invest resources on instructional modes and methods proven to improve learning. For example, as I summarized in a previous post, studies have shown that adding a relevant visual to a textual explanation dramatically improves learning in novices. Learners familiar with the topic don’t benefit as much because they can formulate their own visuals as they read the words. Furthermore, if you have a complex visual such as an animation, learning is better when the animation is explained with audio rather than text. An audio explanation allows the learner to allocate all of their visual attention to the graphic while listening to the explanation. To review the evidence (or lack thereof) for learning styles, take a look at any of the resources listed below.

Your Thoughts?

Has your organization invested resources in learning styles? Was it fun? Was it productive? Why do you think so many resources have been invested in this particular unproven instructional approach? Are workforce learning practitioners too eager to jump on the latest learning fads? Please add your comments to the discussion!


For More Information

Clark, R.C & Lyons, C (2011). Graphics for Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. See Chapter 11: Plan graphics to leverage individual differences. Kratzig, G.P. and Arbuthnott, K.D. (2008). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 238-246.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change, Sept/Oct, 32-36.

About the Author

Ruth Clark is a specialist in instructional design and technical training, determined to bridge the gap between academic research and practitioner application in instructional methods. She holds a doctorate in the field and is president of her own company, Clark Training & Consulting. Her books and articles focus on various aspects of training and e-learning.

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