How many learning styles are there?

Well, it depends on which model you’ve come across. You might have heard of left brained and right brained learners. Or Activists, Reflectors, etc. And you’ve probably come across Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learners at some point.

The idea is that if someone is, for example, a visual learner, they will prefer to learn ( and will learn more effectively ) by looking at visual stimuli -graphs, diagrams, DVDs,pictures – rather than by listening or some other method.

Many trainers talk about desigining training to ” suit the different learning styles ” of the people they are training. ( I do this as well, so I’m not pretending to be any different ).

But does this actually make any sense? Is there any scientific basis in cognitive psychology or neuroscience to back this up?

There have been quite a lot of publications in recent years which challenge the whole idea of learning styles, particularly the notion that someone who is supposed to be, say,  a visual learner, will learn better if presented with information primarily in a visual form.

A number of experiments have been done which just do not show this result. They suggest that supposedly visual learners learn just as well when given material in audio format, for example.

Some reports accept that certain people have a good visual memory, let’s say, but this is only relevant when dealing with something which is visual anyway, such as shape, colour, size. It doesn’t influence how someone remembers something which is not visual, e.g. the meaning of a word.

I’m not going to give all the references here but, if you’re interested you can Google ” learning styles myths ” or look for Professor Frank Cofield, Daniel Willingham or Ruth Clark and see the results.

A lesson for us as trainers is that we should be wary of accepting models which were put forward many years ago and which may need to be revised in the light of more recent research.

However, what does it mean for us in practice? I think the idea of learning styles has done a lot of good, even if it turns out not to be absolutely correct. It encouraged trainers to think about varying their approach, specifically to break away from the one – way lecture style of presentation.

It encouraged people to make training more interactive, engaging and interesting, using a range of media and stimuli. It made training more focused on the learners and their needs, which I think is to be encouraged.

I believe this is still the way to go with your training – make it as holistic as possible, engaging as many senses as you can, incorporating movement, visuals, practical work, real examples and as many other things as you can think of.

Apart from anything else, this just makes your training a lot more exciting and that makes it far more likely that people will learn effectively – if they’re asleep, they’re not learning anything!

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