L&D Bootstrapper How Useful Are Learning Styles?

How Useful Are Learning Styles?


I’m a verbal, kinesthetic, assimilating, reflecting, affective, naturalist, Hufflepuff learner!

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In this episode, we’re asking how useful are learning styles?

Alright, so any existing L&D people watching this will likely recognise this topic for the low-hanging fruit that is. But, I wanted to touch on this because I believe that we can waste a lot of time and money in this area. In case you’re unfamiliar, I’m gonna give you a brief rundown of where learning styles come from and why they’re like blood in the water to the learning and development community.

Okay, so let’s start by lifting straight from my Learning in Sixty Seconds or Under video on this very topic which I’ll link to at the end of this episode.

So over the years loads of competing theories have tried to explain how people learn. These theories are usually made up of what are known as learning styles and often suggest that people learn better if lessons cater to their preferred style.

As an example back in the 1980s an American guy called David Kolb developed the Experiential Learning model. (Write that down!) Which basically breaks down the process of learning as a four stage cycle. Now you’re about to get hit with some serious L&D jargon, so bear with me here.

So, Kolb’s learning cycle doesn’t really have a start or an end point so we’ll just jump off with concrete experience, where the learner does something or has some kind of experience they could potentially learn from.

The next stage is reflective observation, where the learner thinks back over the experience and
reviews what went well, what didn’t and, more importantly, why.

This is followed by abstract conceptualisation. This is where the learner begins to consider how their observations might impact what they currently do or think, or how their new understanding might be applied in their life or work, and so on.

Then there’s active experimentation where the learner tests out their new ideas to see what actually
works and this leads to further concrete experience and so the cycle begins anew.

Now, Kolb suggested that while all learners must go through the full cycle, individual learners will prefer one stage over the others. Now this preference was described as the individual’s learning style.

To align with each stage of the experiential learning model the four learning styles that Kolb proposed are…

  • Diverging, where the learner prefers the process of reflecting on their experiences, considering what’s gone well and what hasn’t and looking for lessons to be learnt.
  • Assimilating, where the learner prefers the process of imagining how what they’ve learnt might be applied in their context.
  • Converging, where the learner prefers the process of taking what they imagined and then putting it into practice through active experimentation.
  • And Accommodating, where the learner prefers the process of gaining concrete experience from active experimentation.

Still with me?

It’s worth talking at this point why learning styles are so controversial in the L&D community and it’s essentially down to how they’ve traditionally have been used in education. See, what Kolb was essentially saying was that because people prefer to learn in a particular way, for example, by experiencing
something, and then thinking about it afterwards, then they will, for want of a better phrase, learn better when sticking to their preferred learning style, which to me at least intuitively makes sense. If you prefer learning that way, you’re more likely to enjoy it, so you’re more likely to remember it and then keep coming back. So what’s the problem?

Well, how that’s often interpreted in education is that if we have a classroom of 10 people, for example, each with their preferred styles, the way to make sure they all have the best chance of learning is to provide the teaching or training in a way that satisfies each style.

So, take a second to think about what you’d need to do to design a teaching or training programme to satisfy the learning styles of every single person in the group. It quickly becomes time and cost prohibitive.

Also, there’s another issue…

Kolb wasn’t the only game in town.

Others have come up with their own learning models and styles, with some building on Kolb’s work and others going in different directions entirely. In fact, a much simpler model that many people are more familiar with is William Burke Barbe’s VAK learning styles that predates Kolb’s work by several years. The VAK learning styles are;

  • Visual, where the learner prefers learning through visual representations of information; think of an instruction manual with illustrations or a presentation with graphics and charts, that sort of stuff.
  • Auditory, Where the learner prefers listening to the information, perhaps in the form of a lecture or recording or podcast, and;
  • Kinesthetic, where the learner prefers actually doing something and feels they learn best by linking the new information to a physical experience.

You’ve then got Grasha and Reichmann who believed that it wasn’t how a person learns that has the greatest impact. But the individual’s attitude towards the learning experience.

So with all these competing theories, who’s right? Well, according to numerous studies… Nobody!

A major criticism of learning styles is the lack of empirical evidence to support the idea that by adapting to a person’s learning style, there’ll be any significant positive impact on the quality of learning, with some studies actually suggesting they may cause more harm than good. There’s certainly an argument that by trying to please everyone when designing a learning solution, you’re actually gonna please no one.

Just because somebody has a preferred way to learn doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way to learn a particular topic or skill. As Seth Godin says; If you wanna learn how to ride a bike, don’t watch a video, don’t read a book.

For my money, you’re gonna have much better outcomes by matching the teaching or training as closely as possible to the circumstances and scenarios in which they’ll be using it.

In corporate L&D, where I work, for example, we often refer to this as the point or moment of need. This is an adaptive and agile approach that helps us to focus on providing “just enough” in terms of the information and resources provided, “just in time” in terms of being available when the learner needs it and not some arbitrary date in the training calendar, and “just for me” in terms of being relevant to
the problems that the learner is trying to solve, rather than being packed out with loads of irrelevant filler content.

It’s really important that we always keep our learners in mind when designing training and other learning resources, but rather than focusing on how people learn, try focusing instead on what it is they need to do and then design solutions that help them to do that. That way you’re more likely to use your limited resources in a way that has the best possible chance of achieving the best possible outcome.

How useful you find learning styles? Is there something I’m missing?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments

Thanks for watching.

I’ll speak to you next time.

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