It’s almost a tenet of law in the world of learning professionals—participants learn better if taught in their preferred learning style. We read it, we repeat it, we subject learning participants to endless learning style inventories or assessments before we inflict training, but do we ever stop to question if it’s true? Actually, there have been some scientific studies done and without fail, they completely refute our long-held beliefs.
As Megan Scudellari discussed in the December 2015 issue of Nature Magazine, there are two truths that collided to create the myth. First is the fact that people do have a preference for how they receive information. Second, evaluations of learning effectiveness have proved that outcomes are best when the instructor presents information in multiple sensory modes. However, there is no solid research demonstrating that teaching a person in their preferred style has any benefit.
It is a myth that will be a long time in dying, partly because of the money-spinning market built around this practice. “There are groups of researchers who still adhere to the idea, especially folks who developed questionnaires and surveys for categorizing people. They have a strong vested interest,” says Richard Mayer, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
A 2008 study on learning styles by four cognitive neuroscientists published at the National Institute of Health found, “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. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice”.
So what methods has science proved do affect learning outcomes? What can we do with individual learners to make learning more effective? It turns out that science does have answers and it’s called “active learning.” Participants learn best when they have to immediately use the knowledge they have gained to problem solve. For an example, Sarah Leupen uses active learning in her introductory physiology class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. An original question in her course was: “Name the sensory nerves of the leg.” Her new question, forcing the students to use critical thinking skills, is:
You're innocently walking down the street when aliens zap away the sensory neurons in your legs. What happens?
a) Your walking movements show no significant change.
b) You can no longer walk.
c) You can walk, but the pace changes.
d) You can walk, but clumsily.
“We usually get lots of vigorous debate on this one,” says Leupen, who spends most of her class time firing such questions at her students. “It's lovely to experience.”
It’s a tough sell to ask curriculum developers and instructional designers to give up their familiar learning styles model. It’s even tougher to start adding the active learning components that challenge the participants to think and immediately put material to use. However, the science is telling us that if we want to improve the effectiveness of learning, the time is now. Would we rather have an inexpensive-to-develop training that is ineffective, or spend a little more and actually get results?
Our clients and the training community ask us questions and often consistent themes emerge. From making learning stick to developing skills we once assumed every employee possessed, the challenges today’s businesses face can be transformed through a strong learning culture.
Every year, the learning and development industry presents exciting developments, time-saving innovations, and new research. Solutions Arts follows and tests theories, practices, and technologies, and our clients benefit from what we learn. We value sharing what we learn and the opportunity to discuss it here on our blog.