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Learning Styles: Myth or Reality?

If you work in any area of learning – be it in the workplace, with adults in continuing education, or even with young children – you will certainly have come across the idea of learning styles. But is this concept rooted in reality, or simply a very persistent myth? We’ve summarised the research for you, but be warned; you may be surprised at what we’ve found out!

Learning styles theories

There are certainly plenty of theories to choose from; one review found over 70 models! Each one has its own band of followers, and some are more well-known than others, but can they demonstrate an impact on learning? Let’s take a look at just a few of the most common ones and the science behind them.

VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/Write or Kinesthetic)

First proposed by Neil Fleming in 1984, this theory states that everyone has a way of learning that works best for them:

  • Visual learners take in more information from pictures or video.
  • Aural learners prefer to listen to the material to be learnt.
  • Read/write learners find that studying a text and making notes is helpful for them.
  • Kinesthetic learners thrive when carrying out practical, physical tasks.

Many practitioners have been encouraged to cover all the VARK bases when they provide training, and one study from 2012 found that 83% of teachers believed that learning was more effective when it matched a student’s learning style.

What’s the evidence?

The research into VARK is mixed, but the consensus is pretty clear: matching information to a learner’s preferred style doesn’t improve their learning outcome (Rogowsky et al, 2015). Mixing up the way you present information can help to keep learners engaged, however!

Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory

It seems like 1984 was a busy time for learning styles; David Kolb also published his model in this year. He proposed two elements: first, a learning cycle in four stages (where we move from concrete experience to abstract concepts and finally apply what we’ve learned). The second part of his model centres on four learning styles:

  • Divergers prefer to watch, listen and gather information; they thrive in brainstorming sessions, and learn well in a group.
  • Assimilators are focused on ideas, concepts and logic; they prefer lectures and analysis over practical situations.
  • Convergers are great at finding practical solutions to technical problems; they enjoy running simulations and exploring new ideas.
  • Accommodators prefer to trust their gut and get hands-on with carrying out a plan rather than spend time analysing.

These are all basically approaches to learning depending on what combination of doing, feeling, thinking and watching we prefer. It’s a touch complicated!

What’s the evidence?

One study found that people’s learning style, as measured by Kolb’s Inventory, wasn’t even reliably the same across multiple tests – meaning that you could be a diverger one day, and an accommodator the next (Henson & Hwang, 2002). Another had two groups of learners: one where their learning style was matched by the teaching style, and the other where there was a mismatch (Toyama & Yamazaki, 2019). Both groups showed similar results in motivation and success – suggesting that perhaps the style didn’t matter much after all.

Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire

This is a very familiar one for those of us working in HR or management! Honey and Mumford built upon Kolb’s theory, and designed a questionnaire to find out about people’s behaviours and attitudes. They propose that we all fall into four main categories of learning style (and you’ll note some similarities to Kolb’s types):

  • Activists like to learn by doing, and enjoy getting thrown in at the deep end.
  • Theorists want to understand the information and concepts behind what they’re learning.
  • Pragmatists want to get on with it; they prefer clear guidelines to follow that lead to quick wins.
  • Reflectors learn best by observing and thinking; they need time to process new information.

Where do you fit in? And what exactly does that mean for you when it comes to learning new concepts?

What’s the evidence?

While it can certainly be useful for us to reflect on our own preferences at work and when learning new things, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that pragmatists learn better through problem solving, or that theorists learn better from statistics.

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner suggests that we all have several kinds of intelligence; our true potential can’t simply be measured using an IQ test. Each person has strengths and weaknesses across a whole spectrum of skills, and Gardner frames these as different intelligences:

  • Linguistic intelligence underpins our mastery of writing, analysis and learning new languages.
  • Logical/Mathematical intelligence allows us to view the world scientifically and understand problems systematically.
  • Spatial intelligence is the ability to understand and manipulate the 3D world, whether through navigation, sculpture or building structures.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence is honed by athletes, surgeons, dancers and pianists, who use their body skillfully.
  • Musical intelligence includes the ability to master rhythm and pitch, but also can be thought of as having a ‘musical ear’: a seemingly effortless talent for composition and interpretation of music.
  • Interpersonal intelligence allows us to understand the feelings and motivations of others, boosting our ability to work collaboratively.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence is the undervalued ability to self-reflect; to understand your own emotions, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses.
  • Naturalistic intelligence is highly developed in those people who are able to recognise many plants and animals, and notice subtle patterns in weather or other natural phenomena.

What’s the evidence?

Some research suggests that there are links between certain parts of the brain and the different types of intelligence. But should we adapt the learning experiences we offer to reflect this? Giving learners the opportunity to approach a subject from different perspectives and in different ways can have a positive impact on learning (Hattie, 2011). However, there’s no firm evidence to suggest that measuring people’s multiple intelligences can give us clues about how to present information to maximise their learning.

So… myth or reality?

Let’s cut to the chase here: the notion that we each have a preferred learning style, and that information presented to us in that format sticks better – it just isn’t backed up by evidence.

People certainly have learning preferences, and they may well be happier about taking part in training that aligns with these. But put simply, they won’t learn more while they’re doing it. If you’re interested in reading a little more about the science, take a look at this review by Harold Pashler and his colleagues.

There are some key ideas we can take away from the learning styles debate that can have a positive impact on our work as L&D professionals. It’s certainly not a bad idea to mix up your training offering to make it visually engaging, interesting and relevant – and if thinking about appealing to different senses or personality types helps you, then go for it. One thing that research does support is adapting your method of delivery to match the type of content. This can definitely have a positive impact on learning. A sophisticated simulation is the best way to train an astronaut, but is unlikely to be necessary if you’re hoping to learn the finer points of GDPR.

So you needn’t tie yourself in knots trying to make sure you’ve catered for the needs of kinaesthetic learners in your online course, obsess over making everything into a diagram, or diligently record audio versions of all your slides (although it is of course worth keeping accessibility in mind). It’s much more important to keep your focus on which method makes the content clear and useful.

Fundamentally, if you want to make a positive impact in the workplace, the science suggests that learning styles theories won’t help you achieve that impact.

Perhaps the most impactful way to achieve a positive impact on your employee’s learning is creating interesting and structured content in a simple and fast way that helps all learners understand and retain the learning they’re undertaking.