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

By Guy W. Wallace / November 2011

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  • Thu, 29 Nov 2018
    Post by Jay Allen

    Why not pick up where we left off!?

    I guess I'll put myself in that "intuitive" camp that "wants to believe."

    Interesting that, Guy, you use skiing as an one personal example. My undergrad was in P.E. and I learned a number of ways to elicit kinesthetic performance. It was actually prior to my early academic pursuit, however, that I had experienced my own revelation regarding learning preferences/styles. As an avid snow skier from my teen years, I had read articles from industry rags on "how to ski" and mentally-rehearsed drills over and over. I even carried index cards with drills for some time. My ability to "see" my body in motion (pre-VR/AR) mentally and proprioreceptively make corrections based upon my on-hill results led to my becoming quite accomplished and even turning to ski teaching as one avocation.

    Fast-forward a decade and I become exposed to a revolutionary model of ski coaching (more than a semantic change) led by Les Otten out of Sunday River (Maine). Les had become perplexed as an average golfer why he kept shelling out for golfing as much as he did when he really wasn't very good (at the time). He landed on the reality that it was that "one 'perfect' shot in an entire 18 holes" that kept him coming back. He decided to investigate that further with academics and subsequently led the development of a revised approach to ski teaching called "The Perfect Turn." The idea - summed up - was to cater to each individual in such a way that they would experience - at least - ONE "perfect turn" in their on-mountain experience. Mr. Otten knew that repeat business is what would make his endeavors successful and it did. Coaches, not Instructors, would guide Guests, not skier-wannabes - through exercises leveraging prior knowledge - tapping into existing mental patterns. Most folks had walked to the slopes, so that was an easy place to start building mental imagery and translating positive experiences to the now-slippery surface with 3-foot+ boards and klunky boots on my feet in a frigid environment. Key to success was never allowing FEAR to enter the equation.

    All this to say, like others, CONTEXT is KING. (I know we used to say that content was king and I'm glad we've moved on.)

    Fast-forward another decade and I'm flying helicopters for the Coast Guard. Suffice it to say, my annual checkride "in the box" in Mobile, AL was rarely an experience that I looked forward to. It was there that we did not risk life, limb or a $17M machine - we just had to re-start the full-motion simulator after each crash. But it was also there that proficiency in certain maneuvers were translatable back into the actual airframe. Did this now make me a K instead of an A learner?

    I really liked the comment posted by the textual mathmetician - great example of a preference understood.

    With the advance of VR/AR/MR and the use of simulations to train Law Enforcement/Military/Sports Teams, it will be very interesting to see if this debate resurrects in a meaningful way.

    Personally, I do have to ask the "why" behind the debate in the first place. As others have pointed out, some do so to get their name published and/or find a reason to copyright/trademark something to make a buck. I think "getting meta" on our conversation - as a few have done in their comments - is a crucial first step. We all want to deliver efficient/effective learning experiences - let's get serious about our profession and (to those who have research they need to produce) get some solid data.

    Thanks for keeping the debate alive!

  • Sun, 08 Jul 2012
    Post by William Kennedy-Long

    Looking at this from a work-life perspective isnt the truth of the matter, that for the global workforce of today and tomorrow, its more about performance than learning, by this I mean what do I need to do in order to improve my performance. Yes there will almost certainly be a learning element to that (formally and informally), but more importantly, its what exists in terms of performance support to help me achieve my (professional and personal) goals that is key.

    In the world of workplace learning and the ongoing debate over 70:20:10 (and yes as Charles Jennings quite rightly says its not about the numbers its about change), why should we focus on learning styles when it is only really applied to the 10%, (if that) and the reality is that we work with our colleagues every day, so we know them, we know how to approach them, we know how to ask them for help.

    We also have knowledge management systems either through the enterprises we work for or though our own personal knowledge management systems that we have created.

    We should be cognisant of learning styles not consumed or be driven by them!

  • Thu, 19 Apr 2012
    Post by Alia Solo

    Is the debate here over Audio / Visual / Kinesthetic (AVK) learning styles? They never held any credence for me in terms of design.

    But what about Kolb? I haven't seen him mentioned in this debate and his Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) or McCarthy's Learning Type Measure (LTM). What are we really debating here?

    Clark only devotes a surface two pages to debunking the AVK myth, and mentions nothing about other learning styles information in usage in curriculum development and education today.

    Stirring the pot . . . hehe!!!!!

  • Sat, 10 Mar 2012
    Post by Luisa Formisano

    Searching in the posts I have found this article about learning styles. Any theory on different attiudes to learn hasn't been supported by a true experimentation on a solid, scientific approach. Human minds try to change their strategies and techniques in resolving problems and difficulties. It's also emotionality responsible for learner's changing style. Emotions are not illogical but convey meanings too. I agree that rationality and planning help understanding taking away from any chaos the learners may cope with. With different domains also different strategies must be explored and taken into account. Evidence-based approach is the best one to apply.

  • Sun, 11 Dec 2011
    Post by Beth Sorichetti

    Certainly an interesting topic - definitely worthy of refelection. Is it a learning style or a learning preference and if a preference is it a result of conditioning or personality or what else? Does it matter? An activity shouldn't be used solely because it's cool and fun, but for the educational content and relevancy. If it's fun and cool too, then bonus! Personally, let me learn my way, with some short lecturettes, some discussion & q/a's, time for reflection, some reading, some hands on practice, and please include some entertainment value!

  • Sat, 10 Dec 2011
    Post by Ann Yakimovicz

    Learning styles is embedded in continuing professional education. My organization reviewed the criteria set up by ANSI/IACET to become an approved provider of continuing education. One of the standards is that the training materials are designed with consideration of learning styles.

  • Wed, 07 Dec 2011
    Post by Donald Clark

    Perhaps one of the best papers on learning styles is Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone's, Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review (PDF). While the paper does dismiss some types of learning styles and the importance that the recognized learning styles actually have when it comes to learning, it does leave a lot of questions opened.

    One of the most profound statements in the paper, at least to me, is (p68):

    just varying delivery style may not be enough and & the unit of analysis must be the individual rather than the group.

    That is, when you analyze a group, the findings often suggest that learning styles are relative unimportant, however, when you look at an individual, then the learning style often distinguishes itself as a key component of being able to learn or not. Thus those who actually deliver the learning process, such as teachers, instructors, or trainers and are responsible for helping others to learn see these styles and must adjust for them, while those who design for groups or study them see the learning styles as relative unimportant.

    In the next paragraph, the paper continues with this statement:

    For each research study supporting the principle of matching instructional style and learning style, there is a study rejecting the matching hypothesis (2002, 411). Indeed, they found eight studies supporting and eight studies rejecting the 'matching' hypothesis, which is based on the assumption that learning styles, if not a fixed characteristic of the person, are at least relatively stable over time. Kolb's views at least are clear: rather than confining learners to their preferred style, he advocates stretching their learning capabilities in other learning modes.

    While many find this as a reason to dismiss learning styles, I find it quite intriguing in that why do learning styles play a key component is some situations or environments, but not others? I think part of the answer is within this findinga study that was conducted in the U. S. and Israel, found that when students' learning styles matched the teaching method they performed both more effectively and efficiently. But the authors of the paper seem too readily to dismiss it as the end the paragraph with this statementBut even this conclusion needed to be qualified as it applied only to higher-order cognitive outcomes and not to basic knowledge. (p67)

    It seems logical that higher-order cognitive outcomes need more individual support (in this case matching the learning style the the correct learning strategy) than basic knowledge. Thus in some situations learning styles are important, while in others they are not.

    Finally, in the paper's conclusion the authors note (P132-133) that:

    Despite reservations about their model and questionnaire (see Section 6.2), we recognise that Honey and Mumford have been prolific in showing how individuals can be helped to play to their strengths or to develop as all-round learners (or both) by means, for example, of keeping a learning log or of devising personal development plans; they also show how managers can help their staff to learn more effectively.

    Thus the main take-away that I get from the paper if that if you are an instructor, manager, etc. who has to help the individual learners, then learning styles make sense. On the other hand, if you are an instructional designer or someone who directs her or his efforts at the group, then learning styles are probably not that important. Note that I am both a trainer and a designer so perhaps this is why my take-away makes sense to me.

  • Tue, 06 Dec 2011
    Post by Guy W. Wallace

    Hi Claudia!

    The last sentence of the first paragraph states: I first learned back in the 1980s at NSPI (now ISPI) conferences that while self-reported learning style preferences do exist, that designing instruction to accommodate them has no basis.

    So no - I don't think that they don't exist (as self-reported). They do. People have preferences.

    It's just that the science has not (yet) demonstrated that designing learning/training for those styles makes a difference in learning. Maybe some day it will - but now - all of the evidence is against this. And there evidence has been there for decades now. Yet the myth persists.

    Dr. Richard E. Clark told me in a phone conversation a couple of years ago that some studies show that being forced to learn outside one's "preference" actually caused greater learning - as one had to work harder at it. Of course that takes a motivated learner.

    There are more important things for an ID/ISDer to work on than Myths that Mislead, such as authenticity of the content and applications/practice to the learner's expected applications of the learning - plus dozens of other factors.

    Promoting and acting upon something proven to not be valid is not good stewardship for our clients and stakeholders - and does not help "average up" our professional networks.


  • Mon, 05 Dec 2011
    Post by Claudia Putnam

    Meh. So, do you think that you don't have a learning style or preference? I know that I can usually take notes and if I write something down, I will remember it and won't have to study those notes. Is that true for everyone? If not, why not?

    In the case of my partner, if I want him to remember something we discuss, the best thing is usually to go for a walk. A conversation over dinner won't do it. For him to remember something from a class--well, notetaking didn't work, because he couldn't take notes and listen at the same time. So he would tape the lecture and listen to it back while on a bike trainer. What was that? A learning... um... style? Or just some convoluted waste of energy that he happened upon (no one taught him this) and kept doing for no good reason?

    What accounts for the fact that I skip over graphs in most textual presentations of material? If there's a picture, why do I read the captions first? Why did I like algebra better than geometry...did it have anything to do with the fact that algebra is the linear/sentence version of geometry? I'm not saying I couldn't do geometry...when it got more, calculus, then I liked it. That is, once there were WORDS around it.

    Why do some people like PCs better than Macs? Why do some people like a stylus and others like a touch screen? Why do some people like ball sports and some people like skiing?

    Come on. Of course there are preferences. Of course people have brains that are organized in different ways. Go back and read Mel Levine.

  • Wed, 30 Nov 2011
    Post by Jane Bozarth

    Hmm. My comment showed up out of order. I was responding to the post by "Done One". I love Guy's work here and hope he will do more of this sort of thing for us in the future.

  • Mon, 28 Nov 2011
    Post by Larry Nardolillo

    SUPER ARTICLE, but I don't understand Jane's comment about "defending the value of learning styles in instruction by arguing that the volume of science may be wrong". It seems that Guy agrees with the volume of science, which says there is no value in designing for learning styles. Also, I was surprised to see so many learning industry thought leaders supporting the position that designing for learning styles has not been shown to improve learning or performance. I thought learning styles were a given, but perhaps I have been mislead, just like the Wall Street guys who told me that mortgage backed securities and derivatives were a great way to grow my portfolio...

  • Sun, 27 Nov 2011
    Post by Jane Bozarth

    Interesting perspective: defending the value of learning styles in instruction by arguing that the volume of science may be wrong. I direct anyone with a belief in the usefulness of learning styles in designing instruction to Will Thalheimer's longstanding challenge: $1000 US to anyone "who can prove that taking learning styles into account in designing instruction can produce meaningful learning benefits." He's waited 5 1/2 years so far. See . JB

  • Sat, 26 Nov 2011
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Hi Guy.

    I think there are a couple of aspects to the learning styles debate that are often over looked, which tend to muddy the waters for everyone involved.

    Firstly, my understanding of the research is *not* that it proves that learning styles don't exist, but that it doesn't prove that they do exist. This is a subtle but important distinction.

    Secondly, the point (for me, anyway) is not so much whether learning styles exist, but whether using them to inform instructional design makes a significant difference to the learning outcome.

    Personally, I think think learning *styles* are a confusing way of labelling learner *preferences*. For example, when learning about a complex system, my preference is to see a diagrammatic overview, and then read the detailed text that explains it in depth. The professor can talk about it ad nauseum, but I shant truly "learn" until I get stuck into it for myself in my own time. Does that make me a V (Visual) / R (Reading) learner? I don't care frankly, I just want my picture and text!

    The BBC Documentary "The Unteachables" also shows how how changes to the pedagogy can make a difference for different learners. (I've read similar about Maori education in New Zealand.)

    Clearly the term "learning style" is an emotive one that generates a lot of heat. When we eliminate it from the conversation, what we are all really talking about is engagement, learner centeredness and authenticity.

  • Fri, 25 Nov 2011
    Post by Done One

    hola, nice article. although the implication that "science can be trusted" is in itself neither scientific nor wise. although we see science as "the truth," actually it's provisional truth, isn't it? if we "believed" science from 30 years ago that has been revamped, we would have been wrong, right? add to that the well-documented personal and increasingly corporate agenda driving science, and in my opinion it's still wise to doubt *everything* Although since it is the nature of the mind to believe, and necessary for life, it's an ongoing maintenance project.