Learning through your learning style? No style!

My sociology high school teacher sorted us, according to her learning style theory, in groups that, if I remember correctly, she called thinkers, listeners, and visualists. A number of classmates and I belonged to the group of ‘thinkers’. Consequence: we had to go through the boring chapter of the pluriform society, while others were allowed to watch an episode on TV. I wanted that too! “No, you learn better through text and structure” I believe she replied.

If I had a time machine, I would have said to this sociology teacher: “This is bullshit! Learning styles don’t exist!”

Seriously, I will explain this in a minute. But first, just to be sure, a refresher: what again are learning styles? That’s the idea that you have a certain preference how to absorb, process, comprehend and retain information, and that if you learn with this preferential style you would learn more effectively.

An overview study shows that there are no less than 71 different models of learning styles. For example, you can distinguish the categories auditory, visual, or kinetic, or convergent thinkers and divergent thinkers, people who mainly use their left hemisphere versus people who mainly use their right hemisphere, people who are more application-oriented versus reproductive, unfocused, and meaning-oriented people, and so on.

Many studies have been conducted into the effects of learning with learning styles. Often a bit sloppy, because there are quite a few concepts mixed together: learning styles, learning strategies, learning principles, learning motifs, etc. But overall the picture is clear: no evidence has ever been found that the effects occur!

In fact… the best evidence indicates the opposite!!

Everyone has different interests and background knowledge, but we don’t have a specific learning style. Research shows that when people have a favorite form of presentation of content, this is usually a preference for a type of task or subject that they are good at and already feel successful in. For example: If you are good at music, you may think you are an auditory ‘learner’, or if you have artistic talent, you think you are visual. You may think that you learn best in a certain way, but learning in the same way each time will actually reduce learning and will be mind-numbing. So, sociology teacher: your intention was absolutely good, but the effect somewhat less.

But if learning styles do not exist, what’s then the T? How can you offer content in such a way that optimal learning takes place? Of course every situation, every learning goal, and every person is different, but generalizing a number of proven effective ingredients can be listed. All learners benefit when information is put forth in diverse ways that engage a multitude of the senses. Visual stimuli are the strongest, but it is important to use multiple senses if you want information to last. This way, different parts of the brain are used, and in your memory a richer representation of the material is created, which makes you remember it longer and better.

You can use various senses in online learning solutions. The making of multimedia learning products is professional work; an instructional video or other multimedia resources must work well together. What does not work, for example, is when the viewer has to process various information sources at once: such as a piece of text and a table that together lead to the right understanding. Then learners have to distribute their attention to these two sources and that creates a kind of cognitive overload. An example of something that does work well, is a video of a person explaining something in combination with hand gestures: people learn more from the combination of speech and hand signals than from speech alone. The factors of repetition, emotions, and interest also play an important role in learning. Proven effective in the latter two is regularly offering something new and applying variation.

I hope that my sociology teacher still tries to connect to the individual needs of her pupils, but that she doesn’t look at learning styles, but rather at basic needs and interests.

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