How to respond to learning-style believers

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t accommodate people’s learning styles? You can’t tell me people don’t learn differently! I see it in the classroom all the time!”

Maybe you’ve heard that from a classroom presenter (I have). Or maybe you’ve heard this from a client:

“Be sure to include narration for the audio learners! And add lots of drag-and-drops for the kinesthetic people.”

The rare and neglected accordion learnerLearning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research.

Then why do people cling to the belief? Let’s look at one reason why learning styles are so appealing and how we can respond to the believers on our team.

First, the research

These resources link to or summarize research that debunks learning styles:

Debunk carefully — morals are at stake!

The myths that put people into special categories, such “visual learners” or “digital natives,” have a powerful emotional appeal. As a result, questioning them can backfire. I’ve certainly received some impassioned responses, and I know that some of you have, too.

In Urban Myths about Learning and Education, the authors suggest that these myths could be a type of moral panic. In a moral panic, believers claim that there are stark differences between groups of people and that only moral people care about these differences.

Emotions can run high thanks to the believer’s moral commitment. For example, imagine that I believe in learning styles and I’m a member of a team on an elearning project. I notice that no one is planning any narration, so I say earnestly, “Don’t forget the auditory learners!” Someone else says, “Oh, that’s all been debunked.”

I’ve never heard that before. How might I respond?

“Are they saying I’m an idiot?” I think. “I’m not! I care about the learners! The team is just finding excuses to take shortcuts. They don’t care about the learners like I do!” So I fight back, maybe by debating learning styles or just resisting others’ ideas.

This is the “worldview backfire effect,” according to the authors of The Debunking Handbook, available for free from SkepticalScience.com.

How can we respond?

One way to avoid the backfire effect could be to frame your disagreement in a way that doesn’t threaten the believer’s moral position. That way, you can keep their emotions from rising and clouding their thinking.

For example, you might first acknowledge the believer’s compassion and then offer alternatives that meet even more important needs, so agreeing with you won’t harm their position as someone who cares about the learners.

You can also offer an alternative explanation for the situation that the myth is intended to explain, or suggest that the people who originally promoted the myth did so for their own profit, both techniques recommended by research cited in The Debunking Handbook.

For example, if you have a learning-style believer who wants redundant elearning narration “for the auditory learners,” you might say the following:

“That’s an important point. We need to consider how people’s preferences might affect their learning.”

  • This acknowledges the believer’s compassion while reframing learning styles as preferences.

“For example, research shows that people learn best when they can control the pacing, which is actually hard to do if we use a narrator for everything. So if we added a narrator for the subset of people who prefer narration, we’d take away the control over pacing that everyone needs. If we made the narration optional, we’d still have to spend a lot of the budget on it, which reduces our ability to use techniques that everyone needs.”

  • We’re suggesting that the believer’s compassion can be extended to even more people by letting go of the focus on one group.

“Unfortunately, much of the research that seems to support learning styles was done by people who sell the learning style inventories or otherwise profit from them. Independent research doesn’t support the idea of changing our approach to accommodate learning styles, but it does say we should give everyone lots of practice over time. Since there’s more research support for spaced practice, it would be most effective to use our budget to design more practice for everyone instead of hiring a narrator for a few.”

  • We suggest that the myth was created by someone for their own purposes, sucking all the compassion out of it, and then build up the believer again by giving them a different way to show their compassion for the learners. Of course, the alternative approach could be anything supported by research, not just spaced practice.

I’m saying that all learners are exactly the same. Not.

Some learning-style believers say that science fans like me just want to turn learners into robots, denying their individuality.

I say that the best way to honor people’s individuality isn’t to shove them into simplistic categories so we can pour information into them, but to provide them with the respectful support they need to drive their own learning, at their pace. And if we use techniques that independent studies show actually work, we’re respecting learners’ time and showing true compassion for their needs.

I’ve focused here on just the “moral panic” appeal of learning styles. I think they’re appealing for other reasons as well, including:

  • They’re fun like a Facebook quiz is fun. “I’m a visual learner!” Or maybe you’re the rare and neglected nasal learner.
  • They make intuitive sense. Of course we all have different strengths and learning preferences. What’s not supported is the claim that we need to adjust instruction to match learning “styles.”
  • It’s currently popular to put people into categories of all types, so learning styles fit into a larger trend — says I, the high-D INTJ “overachieving” myopic height-advantaged asparagus avoider and bad singer.
  • They’re easy. Simple rules like “Add pictures for the visual learner” are easy to apply. It’s “hard” to use more effective design approaches, such as designing realistic practice activities or helping learners gauge their own progress.
  • A belief in learning styles encourages people to use a wider variety of media in their instruction, which when done well is a good thing. However, pointing out the invalidity of learning styles doesn’t mean, “All instruction must be text!” That’s a false alternative. The content and nature of the task should determine the media. The authors of Make It Stick sum it up this way: “When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.”
  • Learning styles are still being taught by some instructional design programs.

What has been your experience? Why do you think learning styles are still popular? What works for you when you’re faced with a colleague or client who wants to accommodate learning styles? Let us know in the comments.

How to be a learning mythbuster

“Wait, we can’t design the training that way, because Zeus will rain down fire as punishment!”

You might not hear that particular myth, but I’ll bet you’ve heard many others. Here are the most popular myths I’ve heard from learning designers and their clients.

Chart showing high percentage of people believing myths about learning

Oh, those numbers in the chart? They’re just an estimate based on my experience. They’re not real.

They’re like the numbers that someone tacked onto a graphic created by Edgar Dale, magically turning it into a “scientific” and unfortunately misleading “truth” about how much we remember, as Will Thalheimer thoroughly shows.

Putting science-y numbers on concepts is just one part of a larger problem we face: We let unfounded beliefs influence us.

It’s a cultural problem

Why do myths flourish in our supposedly science-based profession?

I like to use a flowchart to analyze performance problems. If we were to use the flowchart to answer “Why do training designers make decisions based on myths?” I think we’d find that the main problem is an environmental one:

We work in organizations that believe harmful myths. We’re pressured to work as if the myths are true, and we can’t or don’t take the time we need to keep our knowledge up to date and combat the myths.

Stand up to the client

We need to change this cultural problem, and one of the first steps is to politely stand up to the client who believes in the impending punishment of Zeus. “I understand your concern,” we might say. “Luckily, research shows that Zeus doesn’t actually exist and has no opinion about our training.” We back this up with a link to an easy-to-read summary of research showing the non-existence of Zeus.

For example, let’s say we have a client who believes in learning styles.

“Learning styles are real,” they say, “and we must design the training to accommodate them.” This has been debunked repeatedly yet stubbornly lives on. It’s one of the most common excuses for inflicting slow narration on elearning users. What can help us debunk this?

  • This PopSci article is a quick, entertaining read and could be a good one to send to the client.
  • Learning styles: Worth our time? links to two major debunking studies and highlights techniques that work better. It might appeal more to learning geeks.
  • Here’s an excellent roundup of opinions from L&D luminaries, from Guy Wallace. It might help convince people who need to see that many experts argue against learning styles.

It’s also helpful to dip into research compilations in our spare moments. For example, the extensive PDF report Learning to Think, Learning to Learn organizes research into specific, plain-English recommendations that are easy to read in short bursts. It’s aimed at people who teach remedial courses but applies to all types of adult learning design.

For research specific to elearning, I always recommend e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Expose myths to the sun

Another way to weaken myths is to clearly state them, to bring them into the light and ask stakeholders, “Is this really true?”

For example, here are some beliefs that affect our ability to design effective training. What would happen if we had our stakeholders stop and consider whether they’re actually true?

  • If there’s a performance problem, training must be the solution.
  • Training is a one-time event or course.
  • Training means putting information into people’s heads.
  • Our job is to make this information easy to understand and remember.
  • We should first tell people what they need to know, and then give them an activity so they can check their knowledge.
  • We shouldn’t let learners make mistakes because that would demoralize them and they’ll only remember the mistakes.
  • We shouldn’t let people skip stuff they already know because they probably don’t really know it.
  • We should measure learning with an assessment right after the training.
  • If we’re designing elearning, it should look like a slide show. No one will learn from a normal web page with scrolling.
  • If we’re designing elearning, we should have a narrator talk through the slides because no one will read.

I could go on (and on!) but you get the idea. A lot of assumptions drive what we do, and we need to clearly identify and question them before they steer us in the wrong direction.

What are the most damaging or stubborn myths that you’ve seen? Have you been able to fight them effectively? Let us know in the comments!


Jan. 28, London: I’ll be giving a talk on writing effective scenario questions at the Learning Technologies conference.

I’m hard at work on a self-paced course on scenario design. Life intervened and delayed my work for awhile, but the material will be available early this year. You can sign up to be notified when the course is ready.

3 ways to save gobs of time when designing training

Everyone wants it yesterday. So how can we deliver on time? Here are three possibly bizarre ideas.

1. Don’t design training

This hamster would like you to read the policy.Does the client just want everyone to be “aware” of the hamster sharing policy? If so, your best bet might be to send everyone a link to the policy with the message, “Read this policy, and share hamsters according to its rules.”

If you have the marketing department send the email, they can track how many people opened it and clicked the link to the policy. If they know what they’re doing, they can even tell you who clicked the link and who didn’t, and who read all three pages of the policy and who wandered off after page 1.

In fact, the marketing department can help you write an email that will make people want to read the hamster-sharing policy. They’re experts in this stuff.

2. Design super-targeted training

Most people who say “My team needs training” are making a ton of assumptions. They jump to conclusions about the problem (“They need to understand!”) and the solution (“They need training!”).

If you let their assumptions drive what you do, you’ll waste time creating more training than is useful or effective.

Your secret goal is to find non-training solutions to the problem. To do that, you invite the client to a quick needs analysis discussion, which you’ll disguise as a meeting to “help me understand the problem.”

Then you’ll run this type of kickoff meeting, walking your client through the first few steps of action mapping.

The meeting will help your client see how changes to tools, new job aids, and other non-training interventions can solve the problem.

If still you end up designing training, it will probably be shorter and more targeted.

3. Focus on challenge, not bling

In elearning we’re tempted to make up for the lack of human contact with an avalanche of irrelevant stock photos, narration, and flying bullet points.

I harp on this constantly, but I’ll say it again: An intriguing, challenging activity often works perfectly well as text. In fact, once you start adding media, you can actually damage an activity, as participants in my upcoming scenario design workshops will see.

Think text can’t hack it? Learn some handy phrases in the imaginary language Zeko in an activity that relies 99% on text. Or see if you can guide the AutoLoon L&D department to the best solution to their performance problem, undistracted by cheesy stock photos or narration.

I can already hear people saying, “But what about learning styles?!” to which I say, “Learning styles are bunk.”

Wind turbine breakaway view

An actually useful image

Obviously in many situations more time-consuming media like video, animation, and audio are absolutely necessary. Try understanding how a wind turbine generates electricity without seeing at least a breakaway illustration of its innards. Even better, the right image can eliminate the need for text.

But what I see far more often is pointless, time-wasting bling applied to a boring presentation.

If we’re expected to produce “content,” we have a choice:

  • We could spend a couple of hours writing challenging, bling-free decision-making activities that help people learn through experience, or
  • We could build a bunch of slides to present the content, and then spend several more hours searching for non-gag-inducing stock photos to add “eye candy,” creating slick transitions to “keep the learner’s interest,” recording unnecessary narration because we can’t expect people to read, and fussing interminably with the timeline to make the narration track properly with the flying bullet points.

Unfortunately, our employers often expect bling. One way to win them over to a more powerful but less bling-infested approach is to show them several examples of challenging, thought-provoking materials designed the way we think would work best.

What do you think? What has helped you create powerful training in a short time? Let us know in the comments.

Tips for webinars or virtual training

“What works for webinars?” People have asked this a lot lately, so here’s my opinionated answer.

I do a lot of online workshops, such as the scenario design course that starts soon. I’ve ditched many of the conventional webinar techniques. Here’s what’s left on my list.

My main recommendation:

  • Include many, many thought-provoking questions for people to answer in the chat.

These aren’t polls or multiple-choice questions. They’re more like, “Here’s a problem. How do you think we should solve it?” or “Here’s a draft of a solution. What’s wrong with it?”

Dialogue bubblesI try to ask a question like this every couple of minutes. In my personal notes for the presentation, I highlight in blue every question I plan to make and then scroll through the file to make sure there are blue blobs sprinkled everywhere.

This results in slides that tend to be activities instead of information presentations. For example, I’ll display a slide that has a draft of a scenario question and ask what should be done to make it better. Information that might have spawned a series of bullet-heavy slides called “97 rules of scenario design” goes in the handout, where text belongs.

You could also repurpose a self-paced elearning activity. For example, you could run a scenario in the session. Display the first decision point and ask everyone what they want to do and why. As the debate goes on, one choice will probably surface as the preferred one, so click that and continue the scenario.

Again, I’m suggesting you do this as a discussion, not a poll. It’s harder on you, because you have to read a lot of chat comments, but the learning is far deeper and the issues raised will be surprising.

The chat is where it’s at!

This one change — your commitment to ask a ton of thought-provoking, open-ended questions — means that you’ll design a series of mini-activities instead of an information dump. Your participants will stay with you, thinking and participating, instead of clicking away to plan their Bali trip while you talk to an empty room.

This one change will require a few more changes:

  • You’ll need a webinar platform with a big, public chat window. For now, I’m using WebEx. I hope to use FuzeBox in the future when I’m sure that it plays well with the extreme firewalls some of my customers have. GotoMeeting is out for me because the chat window can’t be resized on my Mac.
  • You’ll need to stop talking and listen. I periodically say, “Hang on, I need to catch up with the chat.” I’m silent while I read what has happened in the chat, and then I respond to it.
  • If you’re recording the session and the chat won’t be recorded, you’ll want to read chat items aloud so the recording makes sense to someone who wasn’t there. Just as you do when presenting to a big group, repeat the question aloud before you answer it. It’s often impossible to read everything; I just hit the major points.
  • If the chat is super-busy, some participants might hide it so they can focus on you. That’s another reason to pause periodically and read aloud the major points being made.
  • As soon as people realize that you want them to use the chat, they will definitely use the chat. This might happen in ways you might not have intended, such as answering each other’s questions or literally chatting. Don’t try to control them. At least they’re in the room with you instead of pricing hotels in Bali.

Yes, you can handle the chat! It can help to have a second person, but I’ve flown solo with up to 400 people typing furiously away. They realize you can’t read and respond to everything. All you need to do is pause occasionally to catch up with the major points or questions.

Everything else

Some more tips:

  • Avoid headaches and reduce development time by creating a presentation without animations or transitions — PDF is usually safe.
  • Use a headset with a decent mic, not the computer’s default mic.
  • Limit sessions to 90 minutes at most.
  • If you’re providing a handout, make it useful, not just a copy of the slide deck. You might create a handout that includes the main slides with additional text.
  • Make the handout available at the beginning or shortly before the presentation, so participants can use it to take notes. If it’s in Word or another easily edited format, they can take notes right in the handout.
  • Practice giving your presentation, of course, timing yourself and allowing lots of time for the chat.

Finally, here are some common webinar techniques that I avoid. Maybe you can convince me that they’re great — leave a comment!

  • Not allowing public chat. This is Mortal Webinar Sin #1 for me. Probably 90% of the sessions that I’ve attended have no chat. You’re only allowed to send questions in secret, and they go only to the presenter. I rarely stick around.
  • Adding “interactivity” by using polls to vote on non-questions, such as “How many people here have seen a boring PowerPoint presentation?”
  • Sending people to breakout rooms. Maybe I just haven’t seen this done well. When I’ve been a participant, breakout rooms have meant five minutes of technological confusion followed by several minutes of “Is anyone else here?” and then “What are we supposed to be doing?” followed by me quietly disappearing to watch the Shiba Inu puppycam.

How about you? What are your favorite techniques for live virtual sessions? What do you recommend avoiding? Let us know in the comments!


Scenario design online course open for January and February

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” a live online course (with lots of chat!). There’s still room in two of the sessions that start in January and February.

People who have signed up for the course alert list learn about new courses before they’re announced in the blog. Sign up and you’ll be among the first to know when the next sessions are scheduled. The US session sold out quickly after the last mailing — sign up so you don’t miss out next time!

My current very tentative plans are to have an on-demand version of the course available in April and to give another live version in July.

Image credit: iStockPhoto ©petekarici

Learning styles: Worth our time?

If you had time to evaluate the research on learning styles, what would you conclude?

Here’s what four cognitive psychologists concluded: “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. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Learning styles argumentThat quote is from Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, an examination of learning style research. Some more quotes from the paper:

  • Studies are weak: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.” “Meshing” refers to changing your teaching style to match a learning style. (p. 105)
  • [Read more…]

Do we really need narration?

When should elearning be narrated? I think we should rephrase the question as, “When is it a good idea to force all learners to go at the same pace?”

Man with fingers in earsThat’s what narrated material does. The pace of the narration controls the pace of the material. When you’re learning from narrated material, you can’t easily skim stuff you already know, or slow down and concentrate on the challenging parts, because the voice continues relentlessly at a pace that someone else established.

New studies suggest that learner control + text works better

According to recommendations in books like Elearning and the Science of Instruction, we shouldn’t narrate text that’s displayed on the screen. The redundancy interferes with learners’ ability to digest what they’re being fed. So is it okay to remove the text and use narration alone?

Apparently it is if you’re presenting very short science lessons that are based on graphics, which is what was done in the studies that are often cited. Most of the lessons were no more than 5 minutes long, and the learners couldn’t control the pacing. Those studies suggested that in those situations it’s better to use narration rather than text to explain a graphic.

But what happens if you use narration in material that takes a lot longer to learn, such as an hour? In one study, students who read silent text at their own pace finished more quickly and scored better on both retention and transfer tests than did students who used a narrated version of the materials. [Read more…]

Elearning example: Branching scenario

You’re a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. Can you help a young lieutenant overcome cultural differences and make a good impression on a Pashtun leader?

That’s the challenge behind “Connect with Haji Kamal,” a decision-making scenario that my cool client Kinection and I developed for the US Army. The online scenario is the homework part of a lesson plan that includes in-class discussion about how to build rapport across cultures. It’s part of a much larger effort in the Army to strengthen soldiers’ cross-cultural and peacekeeping skills.

Turn on your speakers and give it a spin. If the site is down, the video below will give you a sense of how the activity works.

The goals

The activity is designed to be completed as homework before a culture class, and it includes a facilitator guide with debrief questions. Our goals were to model specific rapport-building behaviors and inspire class discussion.

To follow the “good” paths, you need to see things from Haji Kamal’s point of view, show respect and patience, and otherwise apply cross-cultural skills that will be discussed in class. You end up on less successful branches by making more ethnocentric choices. [Read more…]

Could animations hurt learning?

A recent study suggests that the common habit of “building” information on a slide can interfere with learning.

The researchers used Camtasia Studio to create two presentations on information security. The audio narration was the same in both presentations. The visuals were the same, too, except one presentation used an average of 3.4 animations per slide to make bullet points, words, or images enter at different times. The other animation had static slides—the information was simply there.

After viewing the presentation, students answered a multiple-choice quiz. Students who saw the flying-bullet-points presentation scored 71.43%, while students who saw the more static version scored 81.98%, a statistically significant difference.

Bar graph

What does this mean? [Read more…]

Less text, more learning

Do stakeholders want to add text to your materials? Here’s one study you can use to show how wordiness can hurt learning.

The study compared three lessons about the same weather process. All lessons used the same illustrations but varied in the number of words.

The lesson with the fewest words resulted in the most learning.

Bar graph

Read the original publication (PDF) from the Journal of Educational Psychology, or see the summary on pp. 109-115 of Efficiency in Learning by Ruth Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller.

How to add emotional impact with evocative images

The right image can turn a blah message into a memorable, meaningful experience. But how can you find stock images that aren’t, well, stock?

Last fall I did a quick overview of how to find good stock photos. Here are more in-depth tips that will help you use stock photos to reach your learners’ hearts as well as their minds.

Aim for the evocative

In a previous life as a marketer, I learned the difference between functional and evocative company names. For example, compare the names of two computer companies:

  • Digital Equipment (functional–it simply describes the product)
  • Apple (evocative–involves our senses, suggests simplicity)

The same concepts apply to images.

bland business person imageFor example, more courses than I ever want to see use sterile images of bland business people because the courses are about business, and “everyone knows” that business involves people in suits talking at meetings or shaking hands. That’s the functional mindset, and it has spawned thousands of lifeless photos.

But our courses aren’t really about stiff, overdressed people whose souls have already departed. They’re about problems that need to be fixed or changes that will improve our lives. To communicate that, we need emotionally evocative images.

Quick guide to finding evocative images

Let’s say your course discusses the importance of building trust in others. How can you quickly find good images about such an abstract concept? [Read more…]

Scenario design online course

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