Learning Styles Myth, Meaningful, or Misconception?


05 Oct 2016

Learning Styles Myth, Meaningful, or Misconception?

The ability to learn – to gain knowledge, grasp skills, and grow our understanding – is a core life skill. It is something that we have done both instinctively and through conscious effort throughout our lives.

Once we graduate from formal education and enter the world of work, learning takes on a different role. We do not have scheduled fortnightly timetables that include lessons on ‘Advanced PowerPoint Skills’ or ‘Presenting Like Steve Jobs’.

Learning becomes more infrequent, taking the form of on-the-job learning or training courses.  Trainers play a vital role in both personal and organisational development. To be effective, it is important for the trainer to understand how their learners process and learn new knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

How does the trainer best help their trainees to learn? There has been a recent trend in education practices that focuses on learning styles; distinct preferences of how the learner wants to approach their learning. Learning styles differentiate people by the way in which they process and interact with learning material. The educational trend boasts that learning styles provide enormous beneficial effects in learning.

But what is the evidence? Are learning styles myth, meaningful, or misconceived? There is a lot of scepticism around learning styles and their effect. Some psychologists and educational scientists regard learning styles as one of the great neuroscience myths, alongside only using 10% of our brain, schizophrenia meaning multiple personalities, or describing people as right or left brained.

From our application and research, JTIP believe that learning styles can be meaningful to the trainer. However, there are a lot of misconceptions and myths about what learning styles can do for the trainer. Being aware of these will help make learning styles useful.

Misconception #1: We only have one learning style

If you have ever completed a learning styles questionnaire, you will know that the results are fairly definitive. You are assigned a style that best defines your preferences; you could be an accommodator, visually dominant, or learn through doing. You are categorised into a particular learning style, and this is dictates how best you should learn.

This is part of the reason that learning styles are so popular. Fundamentally, people do differ when it comes to learning. There were always several cliché students at school and university: the conscientious organiser, who attended every lecture and had studied diligently for months; the narcissistic extravert who somehow managed to relate every part of the curriculum to their gap year in Peru; the ‘last-minute’ procrastinator, who shirked all their lectures and attempted to complete the assignment the night before. Similarly to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), people like identifying with their distinct category. It provides insight into their own internal workings, allowing the attribution of success or failure to their particular learning style. It provides a sense of comradery – “you’re a divergent learner? Me too!”

But learning is not that simple, nor is it that distinct. There is a big issue with these categorical models. They assume that you either are or are not. There is no space in between or possibility of strengths in multiple types of learning. Small changes in preferences when taking the test can unnecessarily cause a drastic change your assigned learning type.

It is the same critical flaw that the MBTI suffers from; individual differences are not categorical. They are dimensions – you possess a certain levels of that trait. As a learner, your preferred style of learning could be experimenting or a hands-on approach. However, it does not preclude your ability to learn effectively through other methods. The meaningful solution is to understand how proficient you with different learning styles, and not which style should dictate all of your learning.

This does not mean that all tests of learning style are unhelpful. As a trainer, the purpose of utilising learning styles is to understand the dominant processes of your learners. It is an exercise in self-awareness and understanding. For learning styles tests to provide that insight for trainers, you need to step back and see the bigger picture. Look for tests that treat the learning styles as dimensions, not categories. Look to understand whether your learners have a singular or multiple dominant styles. This will help you build an effective course that facilitates the learning of your students.

In part 2 we look at-  Matching Training to Dominant Styles Improves Learning

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