One of my favorite aspects of research is finding something I wasn’t expecting, even if it contradicts a preexisting belief. While I am sometimes referenced as a “mythbuster” I really don’t start from there—I don’t set out with the goal of debunking something so much as offering a view of what the research really says. I’m interested in why some ideas are so appealing and enduring, what factors prove to be driving and restraining forces behind them, and I try to keep an open mind to what the literature will reveal. Even when I thought I had fairly strong knowledge of the research base I do usually find some surprises. Here are a few.

Learning styles

Surprise: Extent of commercialization

When I wrote The Truth About Teaching to Learning Styles, and What to Do Instead, I was aware of the appeal of “teaching to learning styles” among L&D practitioners, many of whom come to the business through doors other than formal education in fields like instructional design. It’s certainly an appealing concept: sort learners into boxes and provide experiences that fit in those boxes, even if the experience itself (think dancing fire extinguishers as a way of appealing to “visual learners”) doesn’t do much for learning.

But I don’t have children and had no idea how thoroughly the concept of learning styles has permeated the K-12 world. Schools promise parents instruction tailored to their child’s learning style; biannual teacher professional development days feature learning styles workshops, often supported with materials featuring commercial instruments and their accompanying certifications. The commercialization is so widespread it’s not unusual to see learning styles described as a business or industry in the literature. Along with that comes the taken-at-face-value slew of magazine articles, blog posts, teaching guides, and “research” published by the people who sell instruments. The busy fifth-grade teacher flooded with marketing materials about particular learning styles instruments may never run across much research data showing the ineffectiveness of trying to teach to learning styles.

Of all the easy-solution ideas that have gained a stronghold in practice, this is the one I predict will prove to have the most tenacity. It’s partly why I concluded the report with suggestions not for arguing with learning style-believing stakeholders but for having more productive conversations about more effective approaches.

Personality inventories

Surprise: The Big Five Inventory*
Over decades spent in L&D I’ve mostly seen popular personality-type instruments used as entertaining and team building get-to-know-you activities, not as the near-weaponized pigeonholing horror stories I’ve sometimes heard.

While I was aware of the Big Five inventory it was not until embarking on a literature review for Personality Inventories: Fiction, Fact, Future that I found it had so much credibility, even among critics of the concept. For one thing, unlike most other inventories, it scores personality traits on a continuum rather than assign people set types (on the MBTI, for instance, a difference of one point can sort a human into either an introvert or extrovert). Its very construction has more validity. And unlike other, more popular instruments, data shows positive relationships between Big Five traits and workplace performance. And the instrument requires no certification for administration and is available for free.

It is not much of a leap to think that despite its credibility, its lack of uptake relative to other personality inventories has something to do with the lack of marketing dollars behind it. Those working with stakeholders insisting on using a personality measure might want to take a good look at the Big Five as an alternative to some of the better-known products.

*Also known as the Five-Factor Model or by the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE denoting traits measured.


Surprise: How little real data is there

Having worked in L&D departments housed under HR for many years, I always felt the talk about “generations” smacked of age discrimination. I went into the literature review for More Similar than Different: What the Research Says About Generations in the Workplace expecting—hoping, really—to find data about the job performance of clearly defined groups in cohorts with agreed-upon generational boundaries. I expected that data would show no significant differences in the performance of people of different ages.

What I found, instead, is what one might call a “hot mess”. I was surprised at how little in the way of a framework for understanding this is established—from the definition of “generation” to which factors matter in studying generations to the methodology for investigations. (In an effort to research generational differences on three work-related criteria—job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to turnover—one group of researchers, working from a well of 329 articles, identified only 20 that allowed for meta-analysis of similar studies with the same outcome.)

The research is generally weak, comprised mostly of self-report survey data provided by people sorted into groups by age and defined as “generations”, and little addresses whether there are real differences in things like productivity and work performance. The more prolific voices in the field can’t even agree on whether there is, as the saying goes, any there there.

One takeaway from reviewing the literature on all three topics? No surprise: People love to categorize themselves and each other, using constructs from learning style to astrological sign to Hogwarts house. Our need to find simple explanations for behavior, and easy formulas for responding to interactions and conflict and contradictions, will likely continue to provide rich opportunities for investigators for years to come.

Want more?

Catch Jane Bozarth discussing eLearning Guild research at the Learning Solutions 2020 Conference & Expo in Orlando, March 30-April 2, 2020.