When it comes to thinking about your audience, whether you’re working on a tight timeline or you have all the time in the world, one thing you can skip is worrying about learning styles.
But wait! What?
Defining “Learning Styles”
First, what does it mean? It’s the “concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them” (2009, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork).
In other words, “different people learn information in different ways” (2009, Mayer).
Or put another way, individuals have different aptitudes or preferences about how they want to receive information. For example:
- Let me read about it.
- Give me a lecture.
- I’ll do better with pictures.
- Let me build a model.
I have preferences, and I’ll bet you do, too.
Therefore, it should be obvious to anybody that if you design instruction that takes advantage of individual learning styles, then people will learn better. Doing this is called “aptitude-treatment interaction,” or ATI. For example:
- Give the auditory learner a lecture.
- Provide images for visual learners.
Obviously, ATI will help them to learn better, yes?
Kind of sadly, no!
After 30+ years of studies, the evidence does not support using learning styles to design instruction.
Put another way, decades of research is telling us that designing for learning styles does not work. In fact, some say that they don’t even exist.
If you feel a little sad about this, Guy Wallace (2011) wrote a lovely post about why it’s hard to give up on learning styles. Louise Rasmussen (2013) describes their appeal (and points out how misleading they are, too).
If you feel upset and want to fight, Will Thalheimer (2006) has offered $1,000 (US) to anyone who can show meaningful learning benefits from using learning styles. (7 years later, he still has the $1,000).
If you want to use them anyway, despite the evidence, see what Ruth Clark has to say about wasting resources.
What to do instead?
You still want to know something about your audience. The most important thing you can find out about your learners is what they know already (prior knowledge).
There are other things that matter, for example, likely attitudes about the course or topics, special interests, whether your learners will appreciate sports metaphors (or not), if there are any “hot buttons” to avoid, and their experience and abilities with any tools required for the training.
Just rejoice that you can save time and effort by not giving learning styles another thought. There’s never enough time, so unless Will loses that $1,000, you can cross “Design Around Learning Styles” off your list.
Article | Pashler, et al. (2009). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence (pdf)