It's Time To Reconsider How We Define Learning Styles

05/09/2024 10:20 AM | Paul Venderley (Administrator)

I took a learning styles quiz today.  The results: “it depends.” 

Which is probably the most accurate result one can get from a learning styles quiz.  Why?

Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic(VAK) learning styles is a flawed hypothesis that is not backed by solid research in the L&D field.

Yet the idea that learners have a preferred style of learning, and that we should incorporate those styles into our instructional design, perpetuates the industry.  A 2017 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress found that close to 90 percent of responders “indicated that students should receive information in their own learning style.”  Why?

The concept of learning styles can be traced back decades, but current research on the topic points to Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory.  However, the LSI classified individuals into four types — divergers, assimilators, convergers, accommodators — based on where they fall along a concrete/abstract continuum and a reflective/active continuum. 

How did the LSI evolve to auditory/visual/kinesthetic learning styles? In a 2008 study: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, authors analyze how the concept of one’s learning style has been validated using an “existence of study preferences.”  In other words, people participating in the study volunteered preferences about their preferred mode of taking in new information and studying. When we attempt to figure out how to do something new, do we prefer to watch YouTube videos? Listen to podcasts?  Read instruction manuals? 

The Concepts and Evidence study finds that there is little evidence that one’s preference for how we prefer to receive information is related to an individual’s ability to master the skill. 

Other reports challenge the learning style approach to instructional design. In an Educational Psychology article titled: Kolb’s learning styles and learning preferences: is there a linkage?  The author states: “It is suggested that large individual differences in learning preferences within each style and type, and small differences in learning preference mean scores show that, overall, there are weak linkages between learning styles and learning preferences.” 

Subsequent studies have continued to challenge the efficacy of VAK learning styles.  

 Report  Conclusion
Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension (2015) Results failed to show a statistically significant relationship between learning style preference (auditory, visual word) and learning aptitude (listening comprehension, reading comprehension).
The Learning Styles Educational Neuromyth: Lack of Agreement Between Teachers’ Judgments, Self-Assessment, and Students’ Intelligence (2018) No relationship was found between pupils' self-assessment and teachers' assessment, suggesting that teachers cannot assess the LS of their students accurately. Moreover, students' intelligence was not found to drive teachers' assessment of their LS.
Providing Instruction Based on Students’ Learning Style Preferences Does Not Improve Learning (2020) Examination of the extent to which learning style predicts comprehension and retention based on mode of instruction found results failed to find a significant relationship between auditory or visual learning style preference and comprehension.

Perhaps equally telling is this paragraph at the bottom of a Learning Styles Inventory quiz found on the Middlesex Community College website: “However, a valuable goal to set for yourself is to strive to integrate all of the modalities into your learning process; therefore, try using several of the strategies for your weaker modalities as well. As you will also notice, some learning strategies will incorporate more than one modality. Multisensory learning strategies have the capability of strengthening your memory even more.”

What to do? 

Understanding learning strategies requires recognizing the complexity of how people learn rather than oversimplifying it into distinct learning styles. Research shows that it's not the preferred mode of information delivery that matters most, but rather how learners engage and apply the material. To enhance retention, it's crucial to integrate varied content—such as text, images, and audio—with interactive elements like quizzes, simulations, and real-world challenges. These tools encourage active learning and ensure that learners can practice and master new skills effectively.

image by Freepik

But perhaps more importantly, it’s time to reconsider how we define learning styles.

The ATD Training Basics Infoline, “Training and Learning Styles” gives some credence to the myth that learners have a primary “perceptual modality” that needs to be considered when designing training but redeems itself by referring to a Jacobs/Schneider-Fuhrman study that identified companion learner-trainer styles.  Their learner styles were:

  • Dependent

  • Collaborative

  • Independent

And they acknowledged that a person’s learning style may change in response to their situation. Learners may have a more dependent style when they are new to a course or work situation. They’ll develop a collaborative style once they have some knowledge in a subject matter and become independent learners once they have successful experiences in working through new situations alone.

The trainer role changes based upon the learner style. A trainer may fill the role of an authority or an expert for the dependent learner, but an environment setter for the collaborator or a facilitator for the independent learner. The trainer may lecture or demonstrate, test and reinforce when working with dependent learners, but question and model and provide resources and feedback for collaborative and independent learners.

These learning styles avoid stereotypical perceptions of our learners and open ourselves to approaching them based upon where they are in their learner journey.  Which should go much further to enhance learner engagement than the modality used to present the information.

Share this article the next time you hear someone advocate for VAK learning styles!

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