When I was 12, my school made me fill out a form purporting to be able to tell me my learning styles. The possible outcomes were auditory, visual or kinaesthetic. My teacher said that how you learn and revise should be different, depending on the form’s conclusions. An auditory learner might create a revision song while a kinaesthetic learner might count on their fingers.

My sensible classmates ploughed through the test and got on with their lives, but I was feeling cantankerous. I didn’t want some stupid label. It seemed silly. I could see myself learning in all three ways. In protest, I spent most of the lesson creating an information sheet on a new style of learning which I called oditory learning. An oditory learner, I decided, learned by smelling things.

I know, I know. I was a bit of a smartypants.

As an instructional designer, I still run into the concept of learning styles. But here’s a secret which shouldn’t be a secret: 12 year old me was right. The evidence behind learning styles is shaky at best, and could be a barrier to the creation of great learning.

Learning styles?

The Science

It can be tough slogging through psychology papers, so let me analyse some research for you.

A meta-study from the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest conducted by four cognitive psychologists notes that  studies supporting learning styles often use weak methodology. While it’s true that people learn differently, you can’t easily boil that down into neat categories. Time and time again, studies fail to support the hypothesis that there is a benefit to learning in the way that has been assigned to you as “your style.” In fact, the Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK concludes that creating educational materials around learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence”.

The reason why learning styles feel like they should work is due to confirmation bias. We tend to interpret things so that they conform to our pre-existing beliefs. It’s the same mechanism which makes your horoscope seem tailor made to fit you, or that lets that quiz on Facebook sort you into the correct Hogwarts House.

If you still feel like a learning styles devotee or you want to find out more, I suggest taking a while to check out some of the other research out there debunking it. This TED talk is a great place to start!

Ok, so Learning Styles are a bit of a Myth. So what?

So you’ve gone away and looked at the evidence, and now you’re back and wondering what the implications of this are.

In face to face teaching, I think that the problem is one of motivation. If a teacher has decided that a learner only learns visually, they may be failing to try other strategies. Tell a learner that they learn best kinesthetically and they might switch off during a session that doesn’t involve movement or touch.

In elearning, we have a different kind of problem. We feel the need to present the same information in multiple different ways to appeal to lots of learning styles at once. We put in drag and drops for the kinaesthetic learners, a narrator for the auditory learners and lots of visuals for the image-orientated learners. This doubling up of information isn’t a bad thing in itself. I recently attended a webinar from Ominplex discussing evidence-based learning, and the idea of redundancy was touched on. There is plenty of evidence that learning through multiple channels works well. Backing up text with relevant visuals or adding in a voice-over to a video are are all solid ways to ensure that  learners process information.

Go too far, however, and you’re creeping into the realms of extraneous processing. We only have a certain amount of cognitive processing ability available to us, and it shouldn’t be spent matching what a narrator is saying to on screen text, or wondering where to click next. Multiple modalities are good.  Throwing as much as you can into your course and hoping it sticks is bad.

In short…

Perhaps we need to stop overthinking the different channels we can deliver information through. Understanding and using material is what is important to learners. Some people might have better visual memories or auditory processing skills, and that might be advantageous in different situations. But ultimately, our goal as educators isn’t  to work out the best techniques for cramming information into people. The goal is to work out how to give people cognitive arsenals that they can use.

Elearning is great for that. We can be interactive and adapt to users. We can create simulations, immersive environments and practice scenarios that it would be impossible to recreate in the classroom.

So next time you’re thinking of putting in an element just to appeal to “the people who like visual things,” stop and think whether it’s going to help the learner use the information to build new frameworks. If it doesn’t?

You don’t need it!

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