Are Learning Styles an Addiction of the L&D Community?

It’s amazing how many times I’ll still hear practitioners in the field…even co-workers…analyze our learning through the Learning Styles lens.

“I’m an auditory learner.”

“Not me…I’m a visual learner.  I need to see things to have it make sense.”

“Both of you are crazy…you learn so much better when you do it Kinesthetically.”

Back when I was in school, which is longer ago than I care to admit, the idea of learning styles was not only accepted as fact, it was used to design learning.  Teachers were told that if a student was struggling in your class, they should be evaluated to find out if they were a visual learner, or an auditory learner, etc.  Based on those evaluations, in theory, the teachers should provide customized activities to those students to help them use their learning styles to grasp the material.  In practice, it really meant teachers (who were already short on time to accomplish everything they were expected to)  would often try to skip the analysis step and just throw more activities for each learning type into a lesson, which had a tendency to make the whole lesson a disconnected mess which made learning more difficult for everyone.

I am now a professional software trainer (and a bunch more besides, but that’s my basic title), and thus related to the L&D community in the working world. The science behind what makes learning effective has advanced by leaps and bounds since I was in school.  We now understand that microlearning works by taking advantage of the natural memory “chunking” process the brain uses to process information. We know that scenario-based learning and customizing learning based on personal examples helps people apply the concepts we are trying to teach them, and helps them remember them longer by taking advantage of the brain’s natural tendency to remember stories.

But it’s amazing how many times I’ll still hear practitioners in the field…even co-workers…analyze our learning through the Learning Styles lens. The idea that narration must be included for the auditory learners, or that we need to include more hands on for the kinesthetic learners, or that we should instead be focusing on more graphs for the visual learners….it’s enough to make your head explode!  Our department is a pretty small shop, and we don’t have the people or the resources to try and accommodate all of these.

A recent post on the Association for Talent Development’s website provocatively suggested that L&D professionals who use or advocate the Learning Styles methodology are committing malpractice.  While the idea is of course designed to be provocative and get readers to click to read it, the author suggested that, at the very least, L&D professionals need to refrain from advocating for Learning Styles. The author maintains, and I agree, that multiple ways of accessing the information are needed because people do indeed have preferences for how they learn something. But the key is in understanding that a preference for a particular method does not mean that they can’t learn by another method.

For those of us in the software training or technology worlds, where you are often dealing with people who have technophobia, it is important to apply multiple learning opportunities as a way to overcome learner’s fear. Bridging the gap between users and technology comes from trust, and using outdated or stringent singular learning styles is not conducive to building trust.



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