Exploring Learning Styles: does an understanding of them make us better able to design learning?

The notion of learning styles is interesting: that we can identify different ways that people learn and, through this understanding, design materials and experiences that best suit each of these styles. It’s appealing: an engineering approach that tells us we can fine tune performance, engagement and retention by better understanding the learning process. It recognises the difference of the individual and celebrates that. But it’s contentious. Evidence both for and against the existence of actual ‘styles’ is varied and, even should they exist, there is no clear consensus of what we should do with this knowledge.

It’s an area that i venture into with caution as feelings run high on all sides, so in this case i simply posted the question on the learning forum: ‘does an understanding of learning styles make you better able to design learning’. Having lit the blue touch paper, i retreated and watched as the results and opinions flooded in.

The results to the survey were reasonably close run: the vote for ‘no’ led for a long time, but eventually the ‘yes’ contingent drew out a lead. The final result was this: 60% of people agreed with the statement that an understanding of learning styles makes you better able to design learning, whilst 40% disagreed. So a victory, but a surprising amount of dissent and, for the record, i voted ‘no’.

Many people were kind enough to leave long and very well evidenced supporting comments, a selection of which and commentary on are covered below.

I started the debate by admitting that, whilst the academic study of learning styles is interesting, i really struggle to find a practical application. For me, much of the discussion is overly complex or a story badly told. I wanted to know how people translated this knowledge themselves to design better learning.

Bill West, a seasoned e-learning practitioner in the US, introduced two arguments: “First, the current reading and comprehension level of your audience is fundamental to how you design your learning. Does your audience read clinical journals, the New Yorker, or People tabloids? That answer provides a lot of insight into design. The other discussion I often hear is based on the generations: baby boomers, gen X, gen Y, millenniums, etc. The saying goes that each requires a different learning design to engage them. I’ve never fully bought in to that argument.

The first argument is sensible: understand your audience. This is about pitching the tone of voice of our narrative in the learning at the right level: for a professional audience, we can use ‘professional‘ language and assume a certain level of expertise, whilst for a general one, we can’t. If i’m talking to learning professionals, i can talk about an LMS, whilst for a wider audience, i would use ‘Learning Management System‘. Clear and sensible. His second point relates to generational stereotypes and i understand the concern. Sure, we can characterise groups by saying that they have certain attention spans or quality of qualifications, but stereotypes are broad brushes. One thing we know for sure is that motivation plays a role, that even the most jaded teenager can be committed enough to spend hours mastering something if their motivation is sufficient.

Tahiya Marome worked as a special education teacher for seventeen years, bringing a strong practical and grounded point of view to the debate. She said “I found that good learning experiences are created and delivered by people with empathy who listen carefully. When you are co-learning with someone you are learning them while they learn the material and you modulate how you share and how you provoke their interest based on what they are showing you about their own interests and capabilities.” This is demonstrating the native behaviours of a good teacher (or a good communicator): customising the approach to the responses and understanding of the pupil.

Tahiya favours ‘universal design‘: “As an e-learning designer creating self-paced learning experiences I put out all the options and let the learner decide how many or which sensory enhancements or extensions they prefer. It’s call universal design and it is sold as accessibility but in fact it’s just allowing the learner to choose how many and which sensory inputs to use to access content.” 

As learning experience creators (I don’t like the words teacher, instructor, trainer, instructional designer) we need to get off the notion that we teach people. We don’t. People learn with or without our interventions. All we can do is encourage them to take up what we’ve put out there. Just like a buffet at a party, you want to have as many flavour options as are reasonable for your crowd and budget. But in the end, people will put what they want on their plate and it’s unlikely they’ll finish every bite of their own free will.

I like the ‘buffet‘ approach, where we season our learning with a variety of media and styles, indeed, i think this is common, either by accident or design, although it may simply be the path that most of us take to bypass an overly structured approach to the subject. The point that ‘people learn with or without our intervention’ could be read as either resignation or a validation of this approach: provide the materials and people will come. Some will graze on the text, whilst others will focus on different media (possibly according to their learning style…).

Thomas Garrod is an Organisational Learning Consultant, as well as coordinating active discussions on the e-learning global network, bringing a breadth of experience to the debate, making his answer all the more interesting: “I answer yes, though my inclination would be to say no. “Yes” because every bit of knowledge about how people learn helps, but “No” because learning styles are a red herring. We do not design for any one learning style; we design for the body of learners and we provide accommodation for the challenged.” 

As i read this, we are quite closely aligned: learning styles are interesting to prompt us to think about how people learn, and thinking about this is always a good thing, but it’s a mistake to try to design for one specific style or another. Instead, we should think about how we create a coherent central narrative and support people around this.

Christy Tucker gives us a quote from Julie Dirksen’s superb book “Design for How People Learn

What can I do with learning styles? Not much. Sorry, but the scientific evidence of effective use of learning styles is pretty weak…There are a couple of assumptions that can’t really be proved–first, that somebody’s learning style can easily be measured, and second, that there is a practical way to adapt the learning experience to those styles.” (p.52)

Christy also provided us with a link to a detailed research study “Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice.” The key result she brings to our attention is that “most of the learning style instruments aren’t reliable or valid. The research is fragmented and contradictory. There may be value in using them as a tool for self-awareness for individuals, but if we’re designing learning for groups, there are more effective uses of our time.”

You can read more of Christy’s thoughts and research here: [Understanding Learning Styles Research] and here [Revisiting Learning Styles]

Mark Reilly is a new media and e-learning specialist. In response to the question of whether an understanding of learning styles makes us better able to design learning, he noted that “It initially made sense to me that it should. I recognised that I had a preferred style of learning – or I thought I did. VAK [visual, auditory, kinaesthetic] seemed to make sense. And at some point it made enough sense to somebody for the idea of VAK learning styles to be formulated. And once introduced to the learning landscape and instructional designers in particular it seemed that learning professionals wouldn’t be capable of doing their job if they didn’t understand it.

I’ll carry on to quote Mark at length as i like his narrative: “BUT… what it came down to for me was simply this: when I was learning anything I learned from the best resource available to me, always searching for something better until it ‘clicked’. VAK actually didn’t register. Self awareness as Christy mentioned.

When the learning context SEEMS realistic and connects with me, then it doesn’t matter what makes it seem realistic, what learning style it is serving.” 

Like Christy (in her great posts) – I started to question my own acceptance.” 

If you engage me first I care less about the learning style (if I ever cared at all). Knowing about learning styles serves you the same way it serves to know the rules in any discipline. If these are the RULES we are conforming to – so that we best serve the learners – then we KNOW THEM simply to BREAK THEM and serve the learners to an even greater degree.” 

In other words, it’s interesting to understand the research on learning styles (or to understand what they are getting at), but that it’s a mistake to try to ‘use’ them to design learning. I think what Mark is talking about is the importance of narrative, of a strong story, and that we need to understand that people are different to be effective storytellers.

Perrin Rowland is a learning and user experience specialist, bringing a range of practical experience, and stresses her focus on learning experience: “in addition to clear instructions, signposting, good user flows and well designed interface (yep pretty or soothing or efficient etc) I strongly believe in constructing a narrative through the learning that provides the answer to so what questions. why do I need to know this? How will this make my job easier? More effective? Ultimately so what? Examples and self reflexivity are important alongside the buffet offerings. But, because we offer so many choices in the lx I think learning styles are key in the same way we user profile for ux. Knowing your learner and collaborating with them is a key activity. Protecting their interests from didactic SMe s is a chronic negotiation.

I think Perrin is taking a more supportive stance here, feeling more value and possible practical application of learning styles. I think she uses this understanding as a sense check, holding up the profiles to see how what we have designed stacks up against them. Mark disagreed with this somewhat, “User profiles for UX? Yes – without a doubt and I use them. Learner Styles for LX? Personally I wouldn’t. But do you need to understand your learners and demonstrate that you do? I absolutely agree.” So maybe Perrin sees a more practical application, whilst Mark sees it informing his thinking, but not necessarily as a practical tool.

Jan Chambers works in education management and brings us back to a practical viewpoint, asking how we define learning styles. “I think it firstly depends on how you define learning styles and how you then use your understanding. For example I have seen VAK used in ways that limit learning rather than develop it. If the teacher/tutor identifies a pupil/student’s preferred learning style and then plans learning around that it can only limit the learning potential. It’s far better, I believe, to design learning that encourages and supports the learner to develop in all learning styles and in particular the learning styles which are not the preferred ones. I’d also recommend looking at work on developing learning power, for example in the work of Guy Claxton, which I believe is far more powerful. This is about helping learners/pupils/students to develop learning dispositions which will enable them to become more powerful learners. In this way an understanding of learning styles, however you interpret that, puts you in a better position to design to design learning. The more we know and understand about learning the more we can support our pupils/students/learners in becoming powerful learners themselves. Good learners can then transfer learning skills to support their own learning in different contexts.

Jan brings us a neat alternative view, that maybe as learners we should better understand our own style, to develop our ‘learning disposition‘. I like this, it made me pause for thought. Instead of viewing learning styles as a reductionist methodology used by learning designers to manipulate me, i can view them as tools for self understanding and actively developing my learning style.

Julie Dirksen, who brings a detailed understanding of the research through her own writing, talks about ‘expressed preference‘:

I’m kind of intrigued by why learning styles is such sticky idea, despite the poor evidence base. I think (maybe) people recognise something in the idea that justifies their own experience with poor learning experiences (“Ah hah! I’m a visual learner! No wonder that lecture was so boring!”), but all the learning style inventories I’ve seen are based on learner’s expressed preference, rather than something with a more valid relationship to outcomes. It feels truth-y to people, but logically wouldn’t determine someones style involve testing their performance with visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc modes?

Julie also makes a nice point that “I think some of the appeal of learning styles is that it feels specific and proactive in a field (instructional design) that still has a lot of fuzziness.” This feels very true, that a lot of the debate and discussion, not to mention the mindless take-up of learning styles by many people who never even stop to question it, is driven by a desire for there to be an underlying logic, even if we can’t spot it.

Both Bill West and Julie Dirkson agreed that the generational differences are probably a red herring: “Our basic brain configurations and physiology are not that different from the people born 25 years and 25 years later. Generational stuff often gets conflated with age-based distinctions, which *might* be more useful (learner characteristics related to someone being in their 60s, rather than learner characteristics based on being born after WWII). I don’t know that we have enough knowledge to parse even that into design practices, though :)

Thomas Garrod throws in a challenge: “For me, the reason is that learning style theory seems to resonate with those who don’t understand instructional design. This is very frustrating because it diverts them from what they should be addressing: poor focus, poor expression, poor engagement, poor transition, learning activities without critical thinking (are we really helping?). Poor learning content is so ubiquitous that it hurts to see misplaced enthusiasm.” And also a caution: “With good learning design, we can add efficiency to learning: with bad learning design, we can complicate learning.” Valid points, that we may do more harm than good if we try to match materials to learning styles too hard, without taking account of learner experience and the overall coherence of the narrative.

Isabel Gardett, a doctoral student and writing instructor, brought us back to the introspective view: “I’ve found that my primary application of learning styles–and I am referring more to, for example, Myers-Briggs or other personality indicators, rather than “tactile learner” vs. “oral learner” (so it might help to clarify the term “learning styles” a bit)–is actually to understand my own style and make sure I’m not always teaching to it and from it. My own style of learning is very introverted and logical: read read read (on my own), use the knowledge, receive feedback, improve. But understanding learning styles has made me more cognisant of the many other ways people learn and their different needs, so even if it doesn’t lead to specific lessons or activities, it has increased the overall variety of my teaching, and that has had positive benefits for students.

As i understand it, Isabel values this introspective understanding and, as a result, has broadened her approach to learning design, a good example of looking inwards for inspiration.

Tina Abplanalp Czlonka: “Good e-learning (web-based training) should provide lessons that address as many learning styles as possible: audio, video, graphics, text, and exercises that require input from the learner, preferably real-life simulations if possible. That way you cover the auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners the most. Just using a computer when progressing through a lesson somewhat helps the tactile and kinesthetic learners. For example, I work for a computer company. We offer a wide range of software simulations that help walk our learners through the steps they need to carry out tasks and activities in the software we develop. Although each of us may have a main or dominant learning style that helps us learn the best or quickest, most of us learn from using multiple senses. The more senses involved, the better it usually is for helping learners understand and retain the knowledge and skills.

So Tina feels that the more senses we use, the better we learn, a commonly held view.

Chester introduces us to research that apparently shows that “designing instruction to fit learning styles has no impact on learner retention

Indeed, he goes on to caution us further: “According to Ruth Clark’s Theory of Cognitive Information Processing, designing instruction to meet multiple learning styles can have a negative impact. For example, displaying text and using audio at the same time can create cognitive overload in the learner resulting in little to no retention.” [Source: “Building Expertise 2nd ed” by Ruth Clark]

Amy Parent-Moffett gives us a straightforward caution, based on her experience in instructional design:  “To me, considering incorporating opportunities to access the material to be learned in a variety of ways via learning styles or other learner profiles is important in maximizing learning. I do feel that most learners can and will learn in what ever mode we present the information in. However, if it is presented in a style in which the learner is least comfortable with they must re-access the material repeatedly, you compromise time and effort of the learner. I feel that allowing learners to access the same material in a variety of ways maximizes student learning. It’s a courtesy to the learner.” We can probably all empathise with this view, that sometimes things are presented in a way that just feels like hard work, although this may relate more to poor execution or writing than learning styles.”

Bob Burke combines disciplines as both a professional musician and academic. I love thinking about how we approach communication and learning from different disciplines, so his view is particularly welcome: “The frustration for me is when ‘learning styles’ are misused as ‘learner types’ – I try to adopt an open-minded approach to learning in which I encourage participants/learners to engage in a wide range of styles rather than pigeon-holing themselves as a particular ‘type’

Ideally, I try to tailor to the individual (easier in 1-1 tutorials than 200 seat lectures), but I try to subtly mix it up anyway, so that there is variety of experience. Mind you, my views are coloured by the fact that I came to (music) education through being an artist and entertainer.” 

I’m very lucky that in my role I can emphasise creative freedom and individual expression, even in academic and business projects, so my job is to kick-start a learning process that the individual can steer themselves. If we love learning, we learn more effectively.

If we love learning, we learn more effectively: very true, this sits behind the motivation that drives people to achieve beyond their apparent capability, be it a child demonstrating a knowledge of dinosaurs beyond their years or an adult learning a new skill to find a job.

I will give the final words to Tina, who writes a broad narrative and call to arms based on her extensive experience:

I have taught every grade level in my career as an educator, from kindergarten through college and graduate school, and just about every topic too. My expertise is in science and I was a Reading and Math Specialist for many years. I’ve taught more people, including adults, how to read and do math than I can remember. Yes, I have taught people. To me, if you are a teacher, educator, or trainer, you facilitate learning. You are a conduit for “turning on the light.” 

“Learning occurs when we make connections between what we already know and some new concept or experience. No matter what anyone says, we use all of our senses in learning. We are not all just visual learners, just auditory learners, just tactile learners, or just kinaesthetic learners. Yes, some people may have a preference for one learning style or channel that seems to work best for them. However, I believe you’ll find that using multiple channels works best for just about anyone. Some like to attend lectures, while for other, listening to only audio may put them to sleep.”

I’ve taught those who had dyslexia and learning disabilities. I’ve taught the mentally retarded, former drug addicts, and alcoholics. I’ve taught those in adult on-the job programs training to be truck drivers, machinists, nurses aides, phlebotomists, EMTs, medical and dental assistants, office assistants, and cooks. I could go on and on.” 

That experience all tells me that the best way to design training and make it adaptable to the largest audience is to consider all learning styles that you may encounter. Naturally, part of any good instructional design is to consider your audience. You certainly wouldn’t design WBT with all text and diagrams if you were designing for blind children. Likewise, you wouldn’t design WBT with only an audio portion if your learners were deaf. Design for the widest audience you can, and you will provide those who have “all their senses” with the keys they need to make the connections.” 

Which nicely brings us back to the ‘buffet‘ approach that we started with. This is by no means a definitive exploration of learning styles, rather a discussion between professionals who have been generous with their time, experience and thoughts to explore learning styles.

In answer to the question, ‘does an understanding of learning styles make you better able to design learning‘, the answer through the vote was ‘yes‘, but with substantial disagreement. What i take away from this is the following: there is value in understanding learning style, particular value in thinking about our own style and reflecting on how we respond to different stimuli and experiences, but learning styles in and of themselves should not be viewed as either predictive or definitive. Personally, i remain more sceptical, but i recognise that there is value in the debate.

Thanks: i’d like to thank everyone who took part in the debate on the Learning Forum, giving kindly of their time and expertise. Any misunderstandings or mistakes are purely my own as i try to navigate what i always find to be a challenging subject. If you have strong views, please join the debate.

You can view the original research on the Learning Forum

About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Barriers to Learning, Concepts, E-Learning, Education, Instructional Design, Learning, Learning Design, Learning Styles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Exploring Learning Styles: does an understanding of them make us better able to design learning?

  1. Pingback: Exploring Learning Styles: does an understanding of them make us ... | Implementing e-Learning | Scoop.it

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  3. eric says:

    This was very nicely put together, with ideas from many people neatly interwoven. Your conclusion echos what I’ve also been hearing in the instructional design word and it was nice to see so many viewpoints together with your own commentary. Thanks.

  4. dianalaurillard says:

    I liked this balanced approach to a topic that attracts a lot of opinions, but not much evidence. My PhD thesis back in the 70s looked at the contrasting learning styles around then (convergent/divergent, intuitive/analytic, deep/surface, holist/serialist, comprehension/operation, scanning/focusing…). I was intrigued by all these dichotomies (were they basically the same dichotomy?) and tested a group of university students on each one, using the original form of testing, and then applied the same tests to learning activities the students were doing in 3 different courses. Most did not replicate (the original authors could not explain this – even Bruner wrote a nice letter saying he was not very surprised). Those that did replicate were ‘deep/surface’ (Marton), and ‘description-building/procedure-building/versatile’ (Pask). But what was interesting was that the students acted differently in the different ‘authentic’ learning activities – sometimes acting as deep learners, sometimes surface. They were mainly versatile, and acted strategically according to their perception of the requirements of the activity (see: Laurillard D M (1984) Learning from problem solving. In F Marton, D Hounsell and N Entwistle (eds) The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press – this is going back a bit!).
    Those old dichotomies tended to be good/bad, so it made sense to be aware of how learners might undermine their own learning and address that in the teaching design. But if I did find such a being as a VAK learner, then I would do my best to teach them to be more versatile across their use of the other styles, not teach to that and immure them in it forever!
    The blog conclusions about the motivation, relevance, and responding to learner needs are much more important than poorly evidenced styles. That means we have to conduct the teaching-learning process as a continual iteration between teacher ideas and practice and learners’ ideas and practice, so that the teacher is able to understand, design for, and respond to those needs (see: Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology, Routledge, 2012 – to come a bit more up to date!). Teaching is a design science (neither just an art nor just a science) in the sense that good teachers, as we saw from the blog posts, use what knowledge there is, but also experiment and test and redesign until the ‘light goes on’.
    But what we don’t do is share those good designs. What gets shared is the experts’ notions. That’s the pity of our profession.

    • julianstodd says:

      Thanks for your valuable thoughts Diana, and for the links to those books and articles. I look forward to reading more of your insights. It’s a fascinating and contentious topic!

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  6. Pingback: Exploring Learning Styles: does an understanding of them make us better able to design learning? | Hablando de enseñar y aprender | Scoop.it

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