Thursday, February 9, 2012

Do Learning Styles Matter?

By Shelley A. Gable

At first, learning styles seemed to be a hot topic because theorists were interested in defining various style typologies and prescribing instructional implications. Hence, we have a lot of literature describing modalities, brain hemisphere preferences, Kolb’s styles, Gregorc’s styles, and more.

Lately, a lot of folks are writing about the fallacy of learning styles. The idea is that no one can find an empirical study that supports the need to cater to learning styles. Many of these folks also point out that we typically design workplace training for large audiences, negating the need to design for specific learning style preferences.

So, is it worth learning about learning styles?

I vote yes.

I can’t think of a situation where I would design training to cater to any single learning style, because of the fact that workplace training is typically for a large audience. However, I do believe that my awareness of the various typologies, and the preferences that exist, helps me design variety into training.

I used to diligently design for different types of learning styles, for the sake of making sure that the training would be effective for just about any type of learner. I’d try to create a balanced mix of individual and group activities, explanations that tap into both concrete and abstract thinkers, experiences that could please convergent and divergent types.

I still try to create this balance of experiences, but now it’s not so much out of a desire to reach every learner. After all, for most of us, our learning capability isn’t limited to a single quadrant on a typology grid. I may prefer to solve a problem on my own, but I am capable of attempting to do it with a group.

I still aim to create a mix of experiences simply because we know that reinforcing a concept from multiple angles is good for learning. If you think of long-term memory as a network, you can imagine how we can more effectively cement new knowledge if we connect to it from multiple directions. Doing so makes us more likely to foster improved retention and recall.

So in my mind, designing for a variety of learning styles isn’t necessarily about trying to reach a lot of different types of learners. Rather, it’s about trying to reinforce content for every individual learner in multiple ways.

Where do you stand on the learning styles debate? It’d be fun to see other perspectives!


  1. My comments - and comments by others - are presented in this recent article: Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners? -

  2. This post is very disappointing when there is a preponderance of research showing that learning styles don't matter. You are only perpetuating incorrect ideas and bad practice.

  3. It's unfortunate that the myth of "learning styles" continues to exist to the detriment of L&D's credibility. Dozens of studies show that there is no correlation between teaching to "learning styles" and effectiveness of the instruction. In fact, Will Thalheimer is now on his 6th year of offering a $1000 reward to anyone who can provide evidence to the contrary. So far no one has claimed the prize.

  4. I agree with you, but perhaps from a slightly different viewpoint.

    Learning styles do exist, for example a University of Pennsylvania study using magnetic resonance imaging technology discovered that the brain processes information differently, depending upon a person's learning style--people identified as visual learners used a greater proportion of the visual parts of their brain than others and vice versa.

    However, most studies show that designing for learning styles is generally a waste of time.

    As someone who as spent a large amount of time instructing others (soldiers, warehouse workers, professionals, upper management), I can attest that people do have learning styles, but as a designer I know they are impossible to design for because they vary so greatly.

    Thus we don't really design for styles, but rather context (which is kind of what I think your post is implying).

    Presenting content in only one context gives it velocity--the speed to rapidly move through an organization, but it is hard to make it sticky.

    Adding context to content gives it viscosity--the richness or thickness to actually transfer to others in the form of new knowledge and skills.

  5. I'll admit, I am aware of the lack of empirical research that supports learning styles and have read many of the articles that argue against designing for them. And I agree -- I don't try to cater to any particular styles, nor do I ascribe to a particular typology.

    But...I will say that my knowledge of the typologies that exist help me help me think of varying ways to reinforce content. Of course, context-true, scenario-based approaches drive the overall methodology. But knowing some of the types of preferences that might exist among learners helps me shape some training nuances in intentionally varying ways.

    Thanks for the reactions to this. I hope more come through. =)

  6. Hi Shelley,

    Whilst I understand your position on this, I'm a bit confused how you can say "OK, there's no research for this, but we know there is research for *this*", whilst not citing any relevant research.

    I'm referring to this line:

    "simply because we know that reinforcing a concept from multiple angles is good for learning"

    You could greatly enhance your argument if you put in some citations to relevant research that backs this assertion up :-)

  7. I agree that having a knowledge of the various theories of how people learn helped me as a trainer provider a richer learning environment and consciously be more creative about how I was training and what types of activities I chose to reinforce the messages. I use that same knowledge now as I train others and work with my own kids. Knowing the various models helps me be creative and look for solutions and additional methods to reinforce learning. But at the end of the day it isn't about how we teach or train, it's not about the education, it's about the learning. Are our students learning? the more we can help them do that, the better. And having an awareness of how people learns helps us help them.


Thank you for your comments.