Often, the very definitions of learning styles suggest their lack of substance: Many websites explaining learning styles or promoting tools based on teaching to them define learning styles in terms of individual preference. That’s actually accurate; a learning style is a preference for consuming information in a particular medium or format. Proponents of teaching to learning styles want L&D professionals to believe that it’s much more: the key to reaching each individual learner. Consuming information is not learning, though, and people’s preferences are malleable. That’s why content should be the guiding factor in determining eLearning format—not learning styles.

Learning styles are not a map for instructional designers or teachers to follow in personalizing instruction. Most of all, they are not a tool that offers insight into how anyone learns most effectively, most efficiently—or at all. Learning preferences are a matter of taste, personality, experience, mood—much like favorite colors or chosen style of dress; and, like clothing, what’s suitable changes based on many factors.

Knowing that underscores the problem with attempting to tailor instruction to learning styles. The best format for presenting eLearning content has far less to do with hard-and-fast learner preferences than with the substance of the content, learners’ existing knowledge, and the circumstances under which learners will consume and use the eLearning and the information it conveys.

Proponents of learning styles would have instructional designers, teachers, and learners themselves believe that tailoring eLearning to each learner’s intrinsic learning style will improve engagement and results. Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t there. As eLearning Guild research director Jane Bozarth explains in The Truth about Teaching to Learning Styles and What to Do Instead, her comprehensive examination of research on learning styles, “Researchers have recommended that time and energy would be better spent matching instructional approach to content and type of material being taught rather than to any perceived individual preference or ‘style.’ ”

Consider the circumstances

Ironically, a website promoting the debunked “VAK,” or visual-auditory-kinesthetic learning styles paradigm, offers a helpful discussion on “understanding learning preferences.” It asks readers to envision specific scenarios and how they’d respond, with the idea that this offers clues to the reader’s natural learning style. It does offer insight into the person’s preferences—as well as her ability to use the tools at hand to address a specific situation.

An eLearning parallel might be asking a learner to imagine a specific moment of learning need—and then to imagine the optimal way to resolve it. For example:

  • You’re a manager, and it’s time to fill out annual reviews for your two direct reports. You’ve only done this once before, and you don’t remember the process. Would you prefer to listen to a lecture on how to fill out the forms; watch a short video where a manager fills them out on screen; or open an annotated form with tips for completing them efficiently? Most managers would choose the infographic, a performance support tool that helps them complete the task with minimal interruption of their workflow. Does that mean that all busy managers are visual learners?
  • You’re a sales rep and you are driving to a meeting with a client. This morning, you saw that some features of a top-selling product were just updated. Would you rather listen to a brief podcast that reviews the changes; read a sales brochure; or watch an animated video that allows you to answer questions and match features to products? If you’re in your car and just need a quick update, the podcast is the most appropriate choice. Does that make you an auditory learner?
  • You’re stuck waiting at the doctor’s office, and pull out your mobile. You need to complete a mandatory refresher on some safety features of a piece of equipment you use frequently at work. Do you want to use the 360-degree video simulation; engage with a chatbot and answer a few questions; or wait until you’re back in the office and can attend a demo? If your time is short, and you’re already familiar with the workings of the equipment, you’re likely to do the short chatbot-based training. It’s the most efficient way to cross that obligation off of your to-do list. Does that make you a kinesthetic learner?

All of the training options suggested are valid ways to teach learners. Any of the various options could be highly appropriate for the situations described. The learners’ preferences may run to video or games or quick reads—if all other factors are disregarded. But in a busy public space, like a waiting room, an immersive simulation is inappropriate. To use drive time effectively, a podcast is the best way to consume information. When an employee needs support while doing a task, a solution that helps in the workflow is likely to be the best choice, even for someone who normally enjoys learning from videos or lectures.

Consider the content

Whenever it is feasible, instructional designers should try to offer eLearning in more than one format or modality—but not because they are trying to teach to learning styles. Providing options does acknowledge a variety of preferences. It also acknowledges the varying backgrounds learners bring and the range of conditions in which they work and learn. Bozarth raises the possibility that, “Depending on context, everyone may benefit from a particular approach over another.”

Some content doesn’t lend itself well to particular learning or teaching approaches, a factor that instructional designers must consider. Written descriptions will be less helpful in learning to recognize birds’ songs than recordings. An infographic job aid illustrating the steps of an unfamiliar, complex procedure will likely be of little help to an employee who’s never seen it done—though, once he has learned the process and done it a few times, the job aid might help him remember key steps.

There’s also the matter of prior knowledge. A brief chat-based safety training Q&A might not suffice for a new employee or one who rarely uses the equipment in question. That individual might need more information to learn the safest way to operate it. But refresher training for a person who uses the equipment often can be shorter and focus on changes, the most essential safety points, or checking overall knowledge.

Tailoring eLearning to the audience and their environment, and letting content guide the choice of eLearning modality, is not teaching to learning styles—it’s simply sound instructional design. To read more, download the free Guild research report, The Truth About Teaching to Learning Styles and What to Do Instead.