By Cathy Moore
“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.”
Learning 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:
- My post Learning styles: Worth our time? summarizes some studies and has extensive discussion in the comments.
- My post How to be a learning mythbuster has links to easy, approachable debunking articles to pass to clients or teammates.
- The Debunking Club has compiled several other resources. This TED talk in particular could be useful for your colleagues and clients.
- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al. is a readable summary of research.
- Urban Myths about Learning and Education by Pedro De Bruyckere et al. debunks several myths.
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.