What is a learning style? How is it different from a preference? Should you change your approach to instructional design to suit your learners’ learning styles?

These are great questions. Defining learning styles is a challenge that has confounded learning and development experts for decades. One response is to acknowledge that a learning style is a preference, and instructors should tailor instructional design to content and goals—not to individual learners’ declared styles.

Why? Because there is no consensus on what learning styles are. There is consensus that teaching to individuals’ self-identified learning preferences does not result in better results, though—consensus that eLearning Guild research director Jane Bozarth documents thoroughly in The Truth about Teaching to Learning Styles, and What to Do Instead, a Guild Research report that is available for free download.

Some researchers trace the concept to learning styles to psychiatrist Carl Jung. Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Meyers, adopted some of Jung’s ideas and used them in their “people sorting test”—which ultimately became the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, according to an interview with Merve Emre, author of a book on the test, The Personality Brokers.

Since then, researchers have found “endless overlapping and poorly defined dichotomies such as ‘verbal’ v ‘auditory’ learners; ‘globalists’ v ‘analysts’; and ‘left brainers’ v ‘right brainers’, for which there is no scientific justification.” Even if all of the named “learning styles” were valid, expecting classroom instructors or instructional designers to teach to all of these, to prepare all course materials and eLearning in a way that could accommodate them, would be absurd.

Frank Coffield, a retired professor of education, along with three coauthors, cataloged 71 learning style models in 2004, grouping them into five “families”:

  • Those that hold that learning style is largely “constitutionally based”;
  • Those that suggest that learning styles reflect features of the learner’s “cognitive structure”;
  • Those that view learning style as an element of a “personality type”;
  • Those that regard learning style as a “flexibly stable learning preference”; and
  • Those that “move on” from learning styles to “learning approaches, strategies, orientations and conceptions of learning.”

The researchers placed the learning style models along a continuum “based on the extent to which the developers of learning styles models and instruments appear to believe that learning styles are fixed.”

At the left end of the continuum, the family of “constitutionally based” learning style models include those approaches that include beliefs that genetics and “fixed, inherited traits” determine learning style. As one moves to the right along the continuum, or considers each family of models, the amount of interplay between inherent characteristics and environmental influence grows. On the right-hand end of the scale, theories attribute more to motivation or environmental factors as well as other external factors—including instructional and curriculum design.

The enormous number of models and the broad range of factors to which they attribute learning styles should be enough evidence to convince an instructional designer that learners are not hardwired to learn in a particular way and that attempting to tailor lessons to each learner’s style is futile. And, even if they did, Coffield’s extensive research has found “no hard evidence that students’ learning is enhanced by teaching tailored to their learning style.”

The desire to teach to learning styles endures, though, because the allure of finding just the right approach to turn each learner into a star student is irresistible to many educators. Rather than expending resources defining learning styles and molding curriculum to fit, Bozarth encourages L&D professionals to “expand our own toolkits and understanding of instructional strategies that do work, to come armed with evidence and better ideas, to incorporate them into our practice, and to help others become more fluent in recognizing and creating better learning solutions.”