In the last few decades, the concept of learning styles—the notion that different people learn information in different ways—has become quite popular.
And why wouldn’t it be appealing? The theory that everyone can learn easily once they figure out their preferred learning style is very encouraging.
But is it accurate?
According to Neil Fleming, it is. In the 1990s, he developed the VARK—Visual, Aural, Read/Write and Kinesthetic sensory modalities used for learning information. Fleming found that these four modalities determined one’s learning style.
But since the VARK was introduced, research has been published to debunk the theory of learning styles. For example, in 2008, several researchers—Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork—conducted a meta-analysis of the learning styles literature.
Published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, they found that learners do differ from one another, and they do express preferences for how they want content presented. However, the four researchers found no evidence proving that individuals learn better when specific learning styles are used.
In the journal article’s summary, the authors explained: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”
In another study published in the journal, Anatomical Sciences Education, Indiana University professor Polly Husmann and colleagues discovered that students do not study in ways that indicate a particular learning style. In addition, the study found that students who did not tailor their studying to fit a specific style did not score better on tests.
And according to a Teaching of Psychology article about learning styles by University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham and colleagues, “Psychologists have made some impressive contributions to education. When it comes to learning styles, however, the most we deserve is credit for effort and for persistence. Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.”
So what does this mean for students and instructors?
While the theory around learning styles may not be as accurate as once thought, there are some very important ideas to keep in mind:
- We know that learning by doing has been proven to be vital in knowledge retention when compared to just listening and watching. So instructors should consistently offer hands-on practice that helps students get the real-life skills they require to succeed in their day-to-day jobs. And in courses that teach students how to use software, virtual training labs are indispensable. By incorporating this type of training, instructors can help students become high performers and productive employees.
- We know that everyone is different, and each individual thinks and learns in diverse ways. As a result, it is critical for instructors to get to know their students. This enables them to customize training to mesh with a student’s individual abilities and interests.
- We know that individuals understand the importance of learning new skills. For example, the millennial generation (numbering more than 66 million) clearly grasps the need for continuous skills development. In addition, many Gen Xers consider training to be a form of job security and crave knowledge. They not only appreciate the freedom and independence to work on their own, but prefer to “learn by doing” in a structured environment. And while many Baby Boomers consider training to be a perk, they need to understand exactly how they will benefit from the training.
According to the Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision survey, 93% want lifelong learning. In fact, four out of five believe the opportunity to learn new skills is a priority when considering a new job—and success depends more on having the right skills than the right connections.
Despite the popularity of learning styles, there is no evidence to support the theory that matching educational activities to one’s learning style will improve learning.
Without this theory of identifying students by type, it is more important than ever to keep in mind that all learners are unique individuals who have the potential to learn. And regardless of what generation or learning style an individual prefers, hands-on experience is vital compared to merely learning and listening.