The great misconception of learning styles

by John Hilton20 Nov 2015
For the uninitiated, learning styles claim to group ways people learn, and attempt to explain why individuals’ learn differently. 

These styles have been developed by the likes of David Kolb, Neil Fleming and Anthony Gregorc.

However, one of the main problems with them is that they are both overused and abused, according to David Boud, Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology.

“Frankly, there are very few situations in which, even if they were true, even if there was a good foundation for them, you could actually get them to work,” he said.

“What situations can you control a training program enough to offer completely different experiences to different members of a group?

“One can envisage a few occasions where that might be possible but on a day-to-day basis there are very, very few training programs that you could apply them to.”

For Boud, there is a problem at two ends. One end is that the data doesn’t stack up very well in terms of how well-founded they are, and the empirical evidence doesn’t really support them, he said.

He added that at the other end even if they were true, it would be very difficult to do much with them.

Boud provides an example when he was teaching a course many years ago in Canada and he happened to, because of the different groups he was working with, complete Kolb’s learning styles three times in about a week.

“I thought if it’s true that learning styles are pretty invariant than what should happen is I should get consistent results,” he said.

“What happened was I ended up in three different quadrants on those three occasions,” he said.

"And then it got me to think, well, what’s going on here? And I realised that because they were different occasions I was thinking about learning different kinds of things or in different contexts.

“And of course you expect someone to learn differently in different situations. If I am studying for a mathematics course than that’s distinct from studying an order to buy my next car,” he said.

He told L&D Professional idea that the idea that one can have a learning style that’s universally applicable to any kind of challenge that it throws up is a rather odd assumption.

Rather, his view is that what education is about is enabling people to learn appropriately depending on the circumstances that they find themselves in.

This means that we need to help people become more adaptable, more flexible and do whatever is appropriate given the situation they need to address. 

“The other thing is that they have got this kind of superficial appeal where they are a very simple instrument you could administer someone,” he said.

“It gives you something that looks scientific, it looks as if it is giving you an insight into yourself. It’s like taking a quiz in a magazine - it’s a fun thing but don’t take it too seriously.”

Boud emphasised that he is not arguing that different people might not have different learning styles.

“If you are completing one of these instruments in order to illustrate the fact that people learn differently that’s fine.

“However, to use it for the things that the people proposing these things want to use it for is probably going too far.”



  • by GByrne 20/11/2015 1:51:31 PM

    I think the true beauty of learning styles is not to pigeon hole anyone as they are merely a snapshot in time. However they are great to be aware of and easy to apply when designing training sessions to ensure you use a variety of different activities and methods to get your point across.

  • by Stephen Dinham 20/11/2015 3:55:06 PM

    There is no evidence they exist and the categorisation they are based upon is potentially harmfull. I am amazed people continue to use learning styles and advocate for them despite the lack of evidence. By all means use a variety of methods suited to the learning needs of the group but let's not endure any more of this rubbish about the styles. If anything at all they are preferences and what we prefer is not always what's best for us.

  • by Julian King 23/11/2015 2:38:20 PM

    Hi Stephen

    There are plenty of supportive studies for learning styles. here's one:

    Kinshuk Æ Tzu-Chien Liu Æ Sabine Graf Coping with mismatched courses: students’ behaviour
    and performance in courses mismatched to their learning styles
    Education Tech Research Dev (2009) 57:739–752

    "This finding shows that learners with strong learning style preferences can especially benefit from adaptivity, either aiming at providing them with courses that match with their learning styles or providing them with suggestions on how to learn from mismatched courses."