Though Debunked, Idea of Teaching to Learning Styles Endures

The appeal of a tool that offers self-knowledge is immense, hence the continued popularity of astrology and personality tests, for example. The enduring appeal of teaching to learning styles—the idea that teaching to each learner’s individual, innate learning style is the key to engaging that learner and boosting his or her success—is similar. If only evidence supported this premise!

In The Truth about Teaching to Learning Styles and What to Do Instead, eLearning Guild research director Jane Bozarth explains that the idea of teaching to learning styles remains attractive for at least three reasons:

  • It purports to offer a way to personalize learning, which in turn will boost engagement and learner success; the promise of an easy way to improve results may be irresistible to many stakeholders who pay for training and seek a way to improve the bottom line.
  • It plays to everyone’s ego by suggesting that all learners are equally able to achieve, so long as their learning style is accommodated; this appeals to both learners and instructors.
  • It offers low performers an excuse: the material was not presented in a format appropriate for their learning style; this may appeal to learners who are frustrated by their lack of progress.

To many, the idea of an immutable type, whether a personality type or a learning style, is comforting. Speaking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, an early and well-known personality test, Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers, said, “On the one hand, believing that there is something innate or essential about who you are means that you don’t have to apologize for who you are—that just is who you are.” She continued, “On the other hand, I think it can make you feel like you don’t have to take responsibility for changing.” Both of these statements could apply to beliefs about innate learning styles, offering learners a way to justify their preferences—and their failures.

An unnecessary crutch

Bozarth cites a plethora of academic literature that analyzes the appeal of learning styles while also presenting a mountain of evidence that teaching to learning styles does not work. One nugget of particular note to eLearning developers and other stakeholders suggests that part of the appeal is that teaching to learning styles offers a justification for using the emerging technology that makes it easy for L&D professionals to deliver eLearning in a variety of modes and media.

The thing is, L&D doesn’t need to lean on the learning styles crutch to justify multimodal eLearning. Plenty of research already shows that offering content in multiple formats improves accessibility—both physical access for learners with disabilities and access in terms of better understanding and retention of the material. It can increase engagement and retention of material as well.

The “multimedia effect,” tested by numerous researchers, shows that learners benefit from having content in both visual and verbal or text formats, regardless of whether they identify as verbal learners or visual learners—or any other type of learner. And creating multimodal eLearning fulfills the principles of Universal Design for Learning: Present information and content in different ways. Offer learners different ways to demonstrate their knowledge. And provide multiple means of engaging learners.

Providing choices acknowledges that learners have different preferences and skills. It differs from teaching to learning styles in that it doesn’t pigeonhole each learner as a single specific type; it allows for flexibility and variety. Learners’ preferences and choices might change depending on the topic of the eLearning, the circumstances where they need to consume or apply it, or other factors. Some learners may consume the same content in multiple formats, feeling that they have mastered it—and demonstrating competence—only after reviewing two or three eLearning tools that present the information in different ways. Labeling learners and teaching to supposedly fixed “types” of learners denies both learners and instructors the possibility of discovering content in new and innovative ways, exercising their preferences—and fulfilling their true potential.

The Truth about Teaching to Learning Styles and What to Do Instead is available for free download to all eLearning Guild members. Explore the research and discover why multimodal learning benefits all learners.

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