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.
Credit: Based on original artwork by Allie Brosh in This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, Hyperbole and a Half.
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.
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.