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Blog Article

Busting the "Learning Styles" Myth

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Everyone is different. We all learn in slightly different ways. Does it matter? Instinctively it feels as if knowing how we learn could be important. It may be important to the learner but it may also be important for those who create courses. So, let’s explore this a bit further.

What is a "learning style"? When I typed the phrase into Google I got links labelled:

  • What are the 4 main learning styles?
  • What are the 7 different learning styles?
  • What are the 5 learning styles?
  • What are the 12 learning styles?

So, there isn’t any agreement on how many learning styles there are! Around 1980 it was suggested there are three learning modalities: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK). More recently text-based methods have also been added, described as reading/writing (VARK).

There are many tests available which let you assess your learning styles. I tried a few and got the following results:

VAK

  • Auditory: 15%
  • Visual: 50%
  • Tactile: 35%

VARK

  • Visual 9
  • Aural 1
  • Read/Write 3
  • Kinesthetic 10

It is no surprise that I exhibit a mixture of all learning styles as, I am sure, everybody does. Consider the Venn diagram below.

It seems that everyone falls into the small, central segment labelled Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic Learner and no-one belongs in any other category.

How can this knowledge help us? How can we act as learners or as course designers to make learning more effective. There have been several studies investigating the popularity of a learning styles approach and its effectiveness. To quote from some of them:

Evidence for popularity of learning styles (Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?, Newton and Miah, Frontiers of Psychology, 2017):

"A 2012 study demonstrated that 93% of schoolteachers in the UK agree with the statement “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinaesthetic)"

"A 2014 survey reported that 76% of UK schoolteachers ‘used Learning Styles’ and most stated that to do so benefited their pupils in some way"

"A study of Higher Education faculty in the USA showed that 64% agreed with the statement ‘Does teaching to a student’s learning style enhance learning?’"

Evidence for ineffectiveness of learning styles:

"In short, there exist a smattering of positive findings with unknown effect sizes that are eclipsed by a much greater number of published failures to find evidence, and we suspect that additional null findings sit in researchers’ file drawers." (Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence? Rohrer and Pashler, Medical Education, 2012)

"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." (Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, Pashler et al, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, 2009)

Is any of this useful?

At IASeminars we offer instructor led (delivered in person and virtually) courses and custom-designed online self-study courses. We want to make sure that our courses are effective for everyone, regardless of how you take them. Instructor led courses include a mix of teaching tools: lectures with accompanying slides; quizzes; cases and exercises studied individually or in groups; and questions, answers and discussion. These courses are generally delivered in small groups where the instructor can ask participants what suits them best and where possible accommodate their preferences.

The greater challenge is for online, self-study courses. In these courses how can we accommodate people who learn in different ways? The answer is not to use learning styles but to include a variety of different types of activities, most importantly, to encourage the learner to take the course in any order that suits them To help them identify their most suitable approach we present a number of different personas each of whom has a different way to learning and then the learner can identify which of these personas they resemble most closely. The personas are:

Nicole likes to work methodically. She doesn't know this subject and appreciates that the tutors will have thought long and hard about the order to present the material, as such she follows the course as it is presented.

Subira likes to set herself goals. She likes to know what she is aiming for and focus her attention on achieving that. Her approach is to start by finding out what she needs to achieve so she starts with the exam.

Kungawo has always believed you should learn the basics of a subject before trying to apply your knowledge and his preferred way is to read. Sometimes he likes to read printed material but he is also comfortable reading on screen.

Kim likes to make sure everything he learns fits into how he works on a day-to-day basis. He is much more interested in learning a new way to do something than the underlying fundamentals. He recognises that the fundamentals are important but reckons they are easier to appreciate when used in context. 

As you can see from the graph below our online course learners seem to appreciate this flexibility as they identify across all four of these approaches.

This is how IASeminars aims to accommodate everybody’s different way of learning.

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