Collateral damage

The L&D community may be divided into two camps: (1) Those for whom the mere mention of learning styles makes their blood boil; and (2) Those who are inexplicably unaware of the hullabaloo and are thus oblivious to the aforementioned boiling of blood.

An angry woman.

The antagonism stems from the popularity of learning styles in the educational discourse – not to mention vocational curricula – despite a lack of empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness when incorporated into instructional design. The argument is that in the absence of such evidence, don’t waste time and money trying to match your teaching style to everyone’s learning styles; instead, divert that energy towards other, evidence-based pedagogy.

This is sound advice.

Nonetheless, I urge my peers not to throw the baby out with the bath water. By this I mean regardless of the existence or impact of learning styles, a phenomenon that enjoys universal recognition is that of learner preferences. And I fear it may be an unintended casualty of the war on learning styles.

For example, a deduction from the literature might be that a teacher need not tailor his or her delivery to meet the needs of the audience. Since learning styles are bunk, I can do what I like because it won’t make a difference anyway. Such a view is conveniently teacher centric, and it flies in the face of the thought leadership on learner centeredness that we have advanced so far. Sure, the deduction may be unreasonable, but extremists rarely listen to reason.

However, a more insidious factor is the dominance of the literature on formal learning. Studies of the impact of learning styles are typically based on teaching in a classroom setting, often in the K12 sector. Furthermore, the statistics are based on scores achieved via formal assessment. Yet we know in the workplace the vast majority of learning is informal.

Let me illustrate my concern here with a personal example. When I need to find out how to perform a particular task in a particular software program, I strongly prefer text-based instructions over video. I’m annoyed by having to play a clip, wait for it to load, and then wait for the presenter to get to the bit that is relevant to me. Instead, I prefer to scan the step-by-step instructions at my own speed and get on with it.

Now, if only video was available and I weren’t such a diligent employee, I might postpone the task or forget about it all together. Yet if you were to put me in a classroom, force me to watch the video, then test my ability to perform the task – sure, I’ll ace it. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the learner’s preference hasn’t been taken into account in the instructional design, and that can affect his performance in the real world.

If you don’t agree with me, perhaps because you happen to like video, suppose a manual was the only form of instruction available. Would you read it? Perhaps you would because you are a diligent employee.

Isn’t everyone?

A woman thinking.

In case your blood is beginning to boil, let me emphasise: (1) Learning styles appear to have no significant effect on learning outcomes; and (2) The nature of the content probably dictates its most effective mode of delivery.

If we assume that learning styles are highly correlated with learner preferences – indeed, for some they are synonymous – then we might be tempted to conclude that learner preferences have no significant effect on learning outcomes. I consider this a false conclusion.

Indeed in a controlled environment, learner preferences don’t really matter. The participants are forced to do it whether they like it or not, or they somehow feel obliged to comply.

Outside of the controlled environment, however, learner preferences do matter. We sometimes see this in formal settings (which is why universities enforce a minimum percentage of lecture attendance), but it appears most starkly in informal settings where the learner is empowered to do it or not. If they don’t like doing it, odds are they won’t.

So we need to be mindful of the interaction between pedagogical effectiveness and learner preference. An experience that your learners love but is ineffective is ultimately worthless. But so too is an experience that is effective but your learners loathe.

As a profession we need to aim for experiences that are both effective and liked by our audience – or at the very least, don’t turn them away.

19 thoughts on “Collateral damage

  1. Well done mate. This is the nature of where we are at as a profession and where understanding learner disposition becomes critical. Analytics will teach us a lot about what we think we know and what realistically exists. I still believe that if a learner can identify the WIIFM then despite the media or mode, they will engage to grab the benefit they seek. Having said this, the preference is key because the opportunity to enhance the learning outcomes cannot be denied. And if a learner states that their preference is blended, then we know that our design and pedagogy better cater for the nature of what can enhance the learning outcome rather than rely on styles, generational differences, personality types etc.

    Nothing replaces beautiful design and learner consultation IMHO.

  2. Thank you, Ryan, and thank you for considering those of us whose blood can boil – although I’d interpret your ‘bunk’ example another way: any design approach that considers the learners as primarily important, even with a misguided ;) idea of how people learn, is going to offer more than one that ignores its audience completely, just because of the benefits that come from thinking learners first. User preferences for what kind of media they access demonstrably do exist, and are developed in lots of ways – what’s available, their habits and past experience, equipment and set-up, budget — and I’d say that is part of the calculation that learners make, but ideally that’s a decision belonging to them, as they work out how to solve their learning need. The learning designer sets up the need, as Rob says, WIIFM.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Rob and Penny.

    Rob, I think your onto something with disposition analytics, and it’s a concept I very much need to delve into. I agree about the WIIFM, and sometimes the role of the L&D pro is to elucidate it!

    Penny, thank you for helping to shape my thoughts about learning styles prior to this post. You make a really good point that a learner-centered approach, even if misguided, will probably be more effective than a teacher-centered approach. I also agree that a “preference” is multi-faceted, particularly in the workplace where another factor that will come into play is time.

  4. Your essay is great and brings up excellent points that are very interesting and timely. The information you provide about preferred learning styles is important for people to read. Those who create courses would do well to understand why they should provide information in more than one media if possible. The illustrations you chose to use are excellent. However…

    It would have been great if you had “prominently displayed” the name of the artist, Allie Brosh, who created the charming drawings you have included in your essay this week. I place “prominently displayed” in this note because that is how Allie requests you cite her if you chose to use her work in your own. She writes” If you want to use my illustrations, you may do so provided that I am prominently credited (read: NOT some tiny little byline at the bottom of a complete repost)”. As an artist, we look out for other artists. Thanks for reading and posting this comment.
    Barbara Yalof, Ed.D.

  5. Thanks for the note, Barbara. I had no idea Allie was the artist of that image. I’ll credit her now.

  6. Ryan, it happens all the time, so thank you so much for responding so quickly. It is a rare day when someone writes to ask if they can use something, because folks simply do not realize that they should try to contact the artist.

  7. I’m in the question asking mode lately “What is the best way to design and present learning to the audience when said audience is so vast in their preference for learning, desire to learn, and accessibility to the learning material?”
    To pull any one theory or ‘fact’ forward as the guiding principle results in learning that misses the mark every time.
    Lately I’ve been considering more how facilitators can identify IF a learner is growing/developing/changing because of the learning OR if the opposite is occurring and then to use their toolkit of skills to alter the course of the learning (the style, the applicability, the fun factor) based on those visual cues.
    Of course online learning presents an obstacle…the computer can’t ‘see’ the learners visual cues…so how to weave those into online learning to gauge if and when a change is needed?
    It’s all possible – it’s all interesting – and thank you for bringing it forward in this platform to keep the wheels turning.

  8. Thanks for asking the question, Teresa. It is indeed a challenge, for example in multinational companies for which the target audience spans countries, cultures, etc. I am hoping that the analytics research being undertaken by MOOC providers (among others) will provide some insights.

  9. A very convincing perspective. Besides appealing simply to likes and dislikes, too — In taking learning preferences seriously we also take into account the learner’s larger circumstances, and give them more freedom and better tools to integrate learning into the rest of their lives. I, like you, also prefer text over video (especially if interspersed with target .gif files or images). It makes it easier to learn at work, where using audio may be difficult. On the other hand, if I’m driving a long commute, learning by audio can be effective (and much safer).

  10. Good point, Peyton. A learner’s “preference” is multi-faceted and its definition is more sophisticated then what he or she simply likes. Your further point that preferences are circumstantial is also right on the money imho.

  11. Thanks for your year-end summary; I am using it to catch up on old posts.

    You move the discussion of learning styles from empiricism vs. belief to a more nuanced place, and I commend you for that.

    One thought, though: Context plays a somewhat central role in whether or not to accommodate a learners’ preferences or actually contradict them. Your example of learning a software application is a perfect example of a situation in which to accommodate preferences. The accommodation can also be justified in terms of time, because people can read more quickly than they can watch a video.

    But in some cases, a learners’ preferences might actually work at cross-purposes to their needs. Sometimes a person might express a preference for a particular approach to learning because it’s what’s most comfortable or requires the least effort. For example, a student who has difficulty relating to a particular work environment is probably best served by spending time in that environment and becoming acculturated to it. But when given the suggestion, the shy student who fears the unknown might say, “But I can learn what I need by reading about it. That’s my learning style.” Indulging the students’ preference in a case like that will not address the core issue–which could be more than a preference for reading but a fundamental fear of going into a particular environment, or any work environment. The students’ long term interests are probably not best served by indulging their preferences but, rather, by working with them to confront the fear.

    But as I said, this is situational. And that’s the issue with so many recommendations about learning. It’s not as simple as ‘always do this and never do that.” The reality is that something that’s wrong in some situations is right in others–and vice versa.

    Your post emphasizes that.

  12. Thanks Saul for opening my eyes to the other side of the coin, and now that you state it, I very much agree.

    For example, one of those work environments that you mention may be the enterprise social network. I know through painful experience that many employees won’t actively participate in it, usually for a raft of complex reasons, one of them being that they’re simply too shy. But that’s not good enough. In the modern workplace, I argue that it’s every employee’s obligation to collaborate with their colleagues, so accommodating their preference to avoid the ESN would be counter-productive.

  13. Thanks for taking the time to follow-up, Ryan (and to tweet about it). You’re not only thought provoking as a blogger, you’re also a polite and thoughtful one.

  14. As Saul says (and Saul is ALWAYS right, I have found) much of the research shows that what people prefer if often at odds with what they need. Or at least what they would retain long-term. Now, if you just need to pass a test, that doesn’t matter. Or if you just need a quick answer, again, doesn’t matter. But Bjork explains that desirable difficulties (as opposed to what seems to be easier), in many cases, help us learn for the long-term, which in training is a big deal.

  15. Saul IS always right, Patti, indeed.

    Because of — not in spite of! — the research that shows what people prefer is often at odds with what they need, we have a challenge on our hands if we wish to shift the dial from push training to pull learning. Without the necessary insight into what they themselves really need, many of our colleagues will travel the path of least resistance.

    Working with our colleagues to confront their fears and motivating them to pursue desirable difficulties are eminent objectives of the L&D professional, but I wonder how feasible they are in an organisation with an employee base in the thousands or tens of thousands. To a certain degree, I suppose.

    I look forward to reading your article about intuition :)

  16. Ryan, I couldn’t agree more. In some sense, the future takes care of itself. People who cannot learn what they need to survive aren’t surviving. Jobs change quickly and that trend is escalating. So those of us in L&D, IT, and elsewhere will learn to survive or not.

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