This column is designed to explore how science can help us improve teaching and learning in our organizations. Frequently, a scientific analysis confirms our intuitions giving us the courage to continue along a particular pedagogical path. At other times, however, scientific analysis contradicts our views and we have to decide whether we are willing to abandon our point of view.

Learning styles and the learning-styles industry

During the last 30 years, the notion of learning styles has become popular in corporate training and a substantial industry has emerged to help organizations apply these principles. This month, we will explore the concept of learning styles and examine the evidence about its pedagogical effectiveness.

The learning-styles industry makes three fundamental claims:

  1. Learners differ from one another in terms of their abilities and interests.
  2. Learners have preferred modes of learning new information. These modes are often presented as continua such as impulsive vs. reflective, visual vs. auditory, linear vs. holistic, or reasoning vs. insight.
  3. The final claim is that our students learn more if we somehow match our teaching style to the student’s particular learning style.

It is worth noting that there is no agreed upon theory of what constitutes a learning style. The industry now includes more than 70 major vendors (including Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles, Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, and Honey and Mumford’s Learning Style Questionnaire) and these various organizations define and sell measurement tools that help organizations identify a learner’s style and then help trainers tailor their training to each style of learning.

Does it work?

Given the popularity of the learning styles approach, in 2008 four researchers—Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, a veritable dream team of America’s cognitive psychologists—conducted a meta-analysis of the learning styles literature. In a meta-analysis, researchers carefully review an entire domain of research and then use statistical methods to combine results from different studies in order to identify patterns, resolve conflicts, and establish general truths.

Their analysis, which was reported in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, came to three general and noteworthy conclusions. First, in any given classroom, learners do indeed differ from one another. For example, some learners may have more ability, more interest, or more background than their classmates.

Second, students do express preferences for how they like information to be presented to them. For example, some people say they prefer information presented visually whereas others say they prefer an auditory presentation.

Third, after a careful analysis of the literature, the researchers found no evidence showing that people do in fact learn better when an instructor tailors their teaching style to mesh with a student’s preferred learning style. Let me repeat that: The researchers found no evidence showing that people learn better when an instructor tailors their teaching style to mesh with a student’s preferred learning style. Pashler and his colleagues conclude that, although there is a vast commercial literature espousing learning styles, few studies have used valid research techniques. Furthermore, they point out that the few experiments that that did conduct a valid scientific test found results that “flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.”

Pashler et al. acknowledge that some future experiment might prove the value of the learning-styles methodology. But based on the 30 years of existing literature, “There is no adequate evidence-base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practices.” Based on this finding, they suggest organizations "redirect limited educational resources away from learning styles and into educational practices that have a proven ability to increase learning." As you’d expect, these findings have been unwelcome news to the learning-styles industry.

Lessons to be learned

Although meshing teaching to specific learning styles has not proven to improve our training programs, there remain three important lessons to be learned.

Get to know your audience

People do indeed differ from each other in important ways, and research does support the idea that you should customize your training to be consistent both with (a) people’s intellectual ability and (b) with the particular interests of your audience. For example, if you are teaching effective leadership to a group of millennials, the research shows that you should use vocabulary that is within their reach. It also shows that you should use examples that are relevant to their lives.

Good training is good for everyone

Great examples and activities are useful to everyone no matter what learning style they say they prefer. For example, do you have a great visual example? Use it because it is going to benefit everyone whether they say they prefer visual, auditory, or tactile learning. Do you have a demonstration that makes a point dramatically and directly? Use it, and everyone will gain from it whether they are a linear or circular learner. Get the idea? Good teaching produces good learning across all learners.

Beware of silver bullets

Finally, we probably need to be wary of silver bullet solutions that promise easy answers to complex problems. All of us want to make our training more effective, and it would be great if a simple assessment could magically improve learning and retention. As we have seen in this column, learning, retention, and transfer can be improved, but it requires a structured and strategic program of training.

An invitation to comment

I know that a lot of people feel strongly about this topic and I want to hear your thoughts. What are you doing in your organization? Are you customizing training to mesh with employee’s learning styles? Please share what you are doing and why are you doing so.

Before offering criticisms, may I request you do two things?

  1. Remember that I am just the messenger here, conveying the results of important research by eminent scientists.
  2. Please carefully read for yourself the article by Pashler and his colleagues. And as you read, keep in mind that these researchers are unbiased and they looked at all of the research before reaching the following conclusion: “There is no evidence to support the notion that meshing a teaching style with a learning style improves learning or retention.” What you do with this fact, however, is entirely up to you.

Digging deeper

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