Have you heard of ‘learning styles’? If you’re involved in training or education, you probably have! As the name suggests, the idea behind learning styles is that every person has their own individual ‘style’ of learning – usually either ‘visual’ (learning by seeing‘), ‘auditory’ (learning by hearing) or kinaesthetic’ (learning through touch or movement) – which should ideally be catered to when we design training initiatives. These styles can be expanded to include reading/writing, giving the acronym ‘VARK’.
Now, the idea of learning styles seems intuitively right. After all, we all know those who are great at physical tasks, while others able to pick something up quickly by listening to it. There are even those, like me, who read the manual before they get started on a new task! So surely there’s something to it?
Actually, there isn’t! Decades of researchers have looked at learning styles – to identify what they are (the VAK/VARK model is just the most common – there 70 or more proposed learning styles!), what their impact is on learning, and how we should address them when we design training. And one thing research shows, time and again, is that there’s no consensus on what learning styles are. Are you an initiator or a reasoner? A pragmatist or a reflector? A holist or a serialist? Or are you really none of these at all?
As a result, it’s no surprise that there’s a lack of evidence that teaching according to any of these styles is effective.
When we start to think critically about learning styles, the concept quickly begins to fall apart. After all:
- Could you learn to drive by reading a book on it, but never trying it yourself?
- Could you learn a foreign language through dance or acting, without hearing, reading or speaking it?
- Could you draw an accurate map of a newly discovered world just by hearing it described?
Whatever your perceived learning style, the answer to these questions is ‘no’! Of course, reading a book about driving can form part of a teaching practice, as can acting out scenarios when learning languages. Similarly, hearing a detailed description of a new place can help you build a richer mental picture of it.
Educators shouldn’t spend their time trying to work out how to cater to every individual’s learning style. However, there is a silver lining for those who’ve embedded this idea in their educational practice: engaging multiple senses does in fact improve learning outcomes, so by using multi-modal training techniques, you will improve results across the board.
And similarly, many of the techniques that are intended to cater for different styles add variety and improve engagement with course materials. So perhaps it doesn’t matter that learning styles are a myth – if, by designing to accommodate them, you’ve put a lot of thought into your training and have used varied techniques and different modalities, then you’ve ended up creating great materials anyway!