Learning Styles and Unicorns

By Carla Torgerson

Do you believe in unicorns?  It’s a safe bet that you don’t.  After all, unicorns are a myth, and everyone knows it.  But what about “learning styles,” the idea that each person is a certain kind of learner, and learns best when material is delivered to them in their own preferred style of learning?  The concept of learning styles has been around since the first half of the 20th century.  It has had its ups and downs in terms of popularity, but it still hangs around despite the fact that the vast majority of scientific research on the topic has pretty soundly debunked it.

In this article, we’ll provide a quick overview of the learning styles concept.  We’ll also take a look at what can be useful—and harmful—about it.

The Learning Styles Concept

Over the years, different versions of the learning styles concept have been developed.  The one that has gotten most of the attention in recent decades is known as VARK, developed by researcher, Neil Fleming.  In short, it posits that each person can be grouped into one of four different types of learner:  Visual, Auditory, Reading, or Kinesthetic.

As you might expect, Visual learners supposedly learn best when information is presented to them visually, with heavy use of pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, etc.  Auditory learners supposedly learn best by using their ears.  Reading-oriented learners allegedly do better when they can read information.  And finally, kinesthetic learners supposedly like to get their hands on things, learning best when they can get physically involved by manipulating objects and so on.

According to this concept, instructional designers should develop programs that cater to each learner’s individual preferred style of learning, providing options that are matched to each style.  Doing this, the idea goes, will result in more effective instructional programs.  Unfortunately, the research does not support the idea that teaching in different ways for different people produces superior learning.

The Reality

Here’s the reality:  Assuming that we’re literate and that all of our 5 senses work correctly, we are all Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic learners.  Each of us has the capacity to learn in each of these ways.  While it’s true that some people have greater reading comprehension skills, or perhaps a preference for receiving information visually, these abilities and/or preferences do not represent different learning styles.

In fact, the most effective method for teaching new material doesn’t depend at all on the learners’ alleged individual learning styles.  It actually depends on the nature of the material being taught.  Furthermore, using a combination of methods is usually the best approach (Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic), even though one of those approaches might be dominant in any given case.

For example, if you want to teach someone the difference between classical music and hip-hop, you’d probably let them listen to multiple examples of each type of music.  You might also provide the learner with some reading materials and show the learner some pictures of famous classical and hip-hop artists.  However, auditory learning will factor most heavily in this situation.

In another example, training someone to service the brakes on a car might involve verbal instructions (auditory), the use of diagrams and demonstrations (visual), and written instructions (reading).  However, letting the person actually get their hands on the car will be the primary—and most impactful—approach.  In this case, the kinesthetic approach is where the magic happens.  We are all “kinesthetic learners” in this sort of situation. Of course, that approach is best when supplemented by all the other approaches too.

Key Takeaways for Learning and Development Pros

Given all this talk about learning styles, what are some key takeways for people who develop and deploy learning programs?  Here are a few that we think are useful:

  1. People do not have preferred “learning styles” – Each person can learn in a number of different ways. People may have differing abilities or preferences, but no person is beholden to any single learning style.
  2. It can be harmful to tell a person that he or she has a learning style – Telling someone that he or she is a “Visual Learner” (for example) might actually hold them back from a learning standpoint, as it can encourage them to pigeon-hole themselves and not take full advantage of their ability to learn in multiple ways. You never want to hear someone say: “I’ve been told I’m a Visual Learner, so I just don’t learn very well by reading things…”
  3. The nature of the content will dictate the dominant approach – Per the examples above, the content itself—and not individual learning styles—will determine the best teaching or training methods.
  4. Most learning programs should use a combination of instructional approaches – Even though a given topic might work best with a given instructional approach, a combination of approaches is almost always the way to go. Make full use of learners’ abilities to absorb content and skills visually, auditorially, via the written word, and kinesthetically (if possible).
  5. To achieve a given learning or performance objective, one well-designed program is usually best for all learners – The idea that each learner requires a program customized to his or her “learning style” is just plain wrong. A well-designed program that uses a mix of approaches (with the content dictating the dominant one) is usually best for all learners.

So, that’s the story of learning styles.  It may be true that here are elements of the idea that can be useful.  On balance, though, we’d like to firmly enshrine the concept in the Book of Myths, right between elves and unicorns.

As a parting gift, we thought you might like this article on learning styles from The Onion.  Maybe you’re a nasal learner!  Until next time!

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