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Learning Styles: Be Extremely Cautious

When I was teaching a graduate course in instructional design at USC, I mentioned that it doesn’t make sense to consider “learning styles” when designing or delivering instruction.

Some of my students looked at me like I was nuts.

Raindrops, on the ground, stones
How do you teach an “auditory learner” to recognize Ginkgo leaves?
A colleague recently made an impassioned statement that of course learning styles make a difference in learning. And of course it makes sense to design with them in mind. Having read nothing about this previously, his stance was based on logic.

Subtext: This is so obvious that if you don’t agree, you are nuts.

The thing is, obvious-sounding things that people say about how our minds work are not always true.

Given all that, I thought I would share with you a few resources on this issue. Why? Because if it doesn’t make sense to design or deliver instruction based on “learning styles,” then we can put our limited time and attention toward other things that we know actually make a difference.

Why Won’t This Myth Die? Guy Wallace makes an impassioned plea to please avoid “Voodoo and Foo Foo in L&D [Learning & Development] and PI [Performance Improvement].” In an earlier article (2011), he offers quotes from leaders in our field (Harold Stolovitch, Richard E. Clark, Richard Pearlstein, Ruth Clark, Will Thalheimer, and Allison Rossett) about learning styles as a persistent myth. Guy also provides some of the reasons why people still believe in trying to use them despite a fair amount of evidence that shows they haven’t yet been helpful.

Money on Offer. Will Thalheimer and others (Guy Wallace, Thiagi, and Bob Carleton) have offered a $5,000 reward for a real-world learning intervention using learning styles that works better than a non-learning-styles control group. So far, there have been no takers.

Scholarly Review. Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2009) reviewed the literature to see if using learning styles in education is a practice that can be backed up by scientific evidence. This quote, from their article’s summary, comes as close to saying “Learning styles are useless” as researchers are likely to say in a scholarly journal.

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.

FAQ from Daniel Willingham. Dr. Willingham is one of the researchers who says, “there’s no such thing as learning styles.” His FAQ is easy to read, and he points out that…

It’s important to be clear that learning styles is not a theory of instruction. It is a theory of how the mind works. So when I say “there’s no evidence for learning styles” I am making a claim about the mind, not about instruction.

  • Researchers keep trying to show that using learning styles works, but so far, they can’t find evidence that they do.
  • It makes more sense to concentrate on using design and teaching strategies related to individual differences that we know make a difference. For example:
    • What students are interested in
    • Their sense of identity related to working hard in school
    • Prior knowledge

Extreme Caution. Smith & Ragan, who wrote an excellent instructional design textbook, say this about learning styles:

…the difficulty in substantiating the validity of the styles, as well as the apparent free-wheeling generation and application of these styles to any and all situations, leads us to recommend viewing learning styles with extreme caution. While information about an individual’s learning style may be helpful to that individual in regulating his own learning within a learning situation, typically this information is not sufficiently prescriptive to aid instructional designers in making design decisions.

They suggest using “more powerful self-regulatory approaches [such as] goals, self-efficacy, and learning strategy.”

The whole idea of learning styles sounds great. Trying to use them sounds like an obvious and logical approach. However, researchers have been trying, for decades, to show that designing for learning styles makes a difference in learning. So far, the evidence is not there to support using them. So, it makes more sense to use the motivational and learning strategies that we know make a positive difference in learning. It’s not like we or our students have more time than we know what to do with for designing, teaching, or learning.

Resources

Post | How the Mind Really Works: 10 Counterintuitive Psychology Studies

Post by Guy Wallace | Voodoo and Foo Foo in L&D and PI About Learning Styles

Article by Guy Wallace | Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners?

Post by Will Thalheimer | Learning Styles Challenge—Year Eight—Now at $5,000

Scholarly Article by Pashler, et al. | Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence

Post by Willingham | Learning Styles FAQ

Video by Willingham | Learning Styles Don’t Exist

Post | Bookshelf: Instructional Design

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