Tip #917: Why the Myth of Learning Styles Persists

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths.” Karl Popper

In their 2006 book, Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, Ruth Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller made the startling announcement that “learning styles are one type of unproductive instructional mythology pervasive in the training profession. At best, most learning style programs are a waste of resources, and, at worst, they lead to instructional methods that actually retard learning.”

They supported their conclusion: “A good example is the popular idea that there are visual learning styles and verbal learning styles…In a misguided attempt to accommodate visual and auditory styles, many e-learning courses present content using visuals, text to describe the visuals, and audio narration of that text. However…presenting words simultaneously in text and in audio results in a psychological redundancy that overloads working memory and depresses learning.”

And still those who should know better continue to refer to and design for different learning styles. Why?

According to Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman, and William Leach in their article making the truth stick & the myths fade: lessons from cognitive psychology, there are five criteria people use for judging truth. Unfortunately, the concept of learning styles aces them all:

  1. Social consensus. Others believe in it: All trainers have been taught about learning styles since the 1970’s.
  2. Support. There is much supporting evidence: There are many different theories, programs, and assessments that reinforce the idea of learning styles.
  3. Consistency. It is compatible with what I believe: I myself have always “known” that I was a visual learner, because I don’t remember what is said in lectures.
  4. Coherence. It tells a good story: I’ve got a great story about a kinesthetic learner who only came to life in the classroom when he had something to fidget with.
  5. Credibility. It comes from a credible source: There are many well-respected trainers who have promoted and continue to promote the idea of learning styles.

Denying the validity of learning styles seems destined to fail. According to an article in The Washington Post, “New psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.”

For all these reasons, it is easy to predict that the idea of learning styles will continue to be with us. I’m going to skirt the issue and refer to them as learning preferences.

Question: Where do you stand on the matter of learning styles?

May your learning be sweet- and safe.


#learningstyles #trainingmyths

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