If Learning Styles have been debunked why are they still introduced in our Design and Development programs?

A recent post in LinkedIn generated a lot of discussion about the validity and value of Learning Style Inventories. It became a topic of discussion among our team because it produced strong arguments for both the PRO and the CON perspectives.

It has been widely accepted that learning styles have no scientific basis for any claim that the effectiveness of learning programs can be improved if the instructional designer includes elements to accommodate identified learning styles.

If you are new to the Learning Styles discussion then you can get yourself up to speed by reading a few articles. Wikipedia is a good start:

“Learning styles refer to a range of competing and contested theories that aim to account for differences in individuals’ learning.”

It was interesting to also look at another wiki called EduTech Wiki which referenced Wikipedia for the definition it used.

“Learning styles are different ways that a person can learn. It’s commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli or information. Psychologists have proposed several complementary taxonomies of learning styles. But other psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for some learning style theories. A major report published in 2004 cast doubt on most of the main tests used to identify an individual’s learning style.”

As a small tangent to this blog, note how EduTech Wiki’s reference to Wikipedia is out of date. My guess is the quote was copied a while ago and has not been updated recently. I included both to show how the perspective on Learning Styles has changed, from being an acceptable concept to being an unacceptable concept.

Will Thalheimer has done a great job of pulling together a summary of the research that leads to the conclusion that Learning Styles have been debunked as an instructional design tool.

The question then came up in our discussions, “Why do we still cover learning styles in our design and development programs?” A good question! The knee-jerk reaction would be to remove the content. Currently, we introduce learning styles in our Designing Instruction program and give participants the opportunity to use Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory to assess themselves. In another program, Developing Interactive eLearning, we introduce Neil Fleming’s VARK Questionnaire, again to allow participants the opportunity to assess themselves.

Given the strong proof that accommodating different learning styles does not improve learning outcomes, why should we still include the concept? A short self-assessment of our circumstances identified a couple key reasons for leaving the concept in the programs. The primary goal of our Design/Development Programs is to prepare participants to become professional instructional designers and developers. As part of the development path we want to expose participants to a broad range of concepts and empower them to judge the value of these concepts. By experiencing a couple of popular learning style inventories and having an opportunity to discuss them with their peers prepares them to make informed judgements of how learning styles will impact their future design and development projects.

Another reason for continuing to include learning styles is to demonstrate the diversity of individuals. Over many years administering these instruments there has never been a pattern to suggest one style is dominant in any population segment. This is reflected by the fact that any one group always shows a broad range of preferred learning styles no matter which instrument is used. Particularly when you look at the same population across two instruments (Kolb and VARK). There does not appear to be any correlation between instruments. The only conclusion that you can make is there will always be a wide range of preferred learning styles within any target population and as a designer/developer you should produce learning materials that are respectful of this diversity.
This message about the need to accommodate learning style diversity is embodied in our ‘VIVE’ formula (Variety, Interactive, Visuals, Examples) for ongoing motivation. Check out a previous post, How to Grab and Hold Learners’ Attention!, for a complete description of VIVE. The component within VIVE that relates to accommodating learner diversity is the first V, Variety. What does variety mean in terms of instructional design?

Variety of Learning Styles

Just as we appreciate variety in our diet, learners appreciate variety in how information is presented and practiced. Variety helps hold attention and interest. Regardless of the quality of the program, learners “go to the beach” about every 20 minutes in the traditional classroom and even faster in online programs.

Lesson components in which you can introduce variety include:


  • Media
  • Methods
  • Structure of exercises (individual, pairs, group, etc.)
  • Technology used
  • Instructors/Facilitators
  • Question types

To summarize then, we introduce learning styles in a couple of our programs to inform participants about what they are and the current research on their value. We also want to raise awareness of the diversity within any learner population. It comes as a shock for some new instructional designers that how they like to learn is NOT the same way all people like to learn. One size DOES NOT fit all!
For information about any of FKA’s programs for Designing, Developing or Delivering learning programs visit www.fka.com.

Jim Sweezie
VP Research and Product Development