Learning Styles in Training Development: Truth or Myth?

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I’m a visual learner—that’s what some eLearning professionals would say—because I prefer memorizing from an outline rather than a lecture alone, or reading about a new topic instead of listening to a podcast about it.

But how significant really is my “learning style” (visual vs. auditory vs. kinesthetic) in the learning and development community? Many studies from the last few years suggest that learning styles are a myth, a fad, a waste of time, etc. I did some more research to read (visual learner here) about both sides of this learning theory in the education and eLearning communities.

Here’s what supporters of learning styles are saying:

“There’s nothing restrictive about a learning style,” says Dr. James Witte, Auburn University Associate Professor of Adult Education. He actually believes there are several types of learning styles, including cognitive, affective, and perceptual. The perceptual category is based on the five senses and includes the following learning modalities:

  1. Visual (viewing photos, film, etc.)
  2. Auditory (listening)
  3. Kinesthetic (movement)
  4. Print (seeing written words)
  5. Interactive (verbalization)
  6. Haptic (sense of touch or grasp)
  7. Olfactory (sense of smell and taste)

Hmmm. According to Witte, and if learning styles are true, then I’m more specifically a print learner—not simply a visual learner like I previously thought.

Witte takes a more conservative approach to learning styles than other researchers (and some suggest that there are alternate styles such as verbal and mathematical); however, some psychologists argue that learning styles are unlikely and that this learning theory is a waste of time.

“We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these,” says Doug Rohrer, psychologist at the University of South Florida, after examining studies of learning styles more closely. He advises, “And until such evidence exists, we don’t recommend that they be used.”

Researchers and learning professionals like Rohrer recommend to instead use training strategies that have been proven to work for all students. On ATD Learning & Development Blog, instructional design specialist Ruth Clark says that instead of learning styles, “let’s invest resources on instructional modes and methods to improve learning.” According to professionals like Rohrer and Clark, while I might prefer to learn by reading, eLearning course designers can use training strategies that are proven to be effective with all learners.

So, as an eLearning developer, what should you do?

Design courses that are audience-focused. Whether you’re a fan of learning styles or you think they’re a myth, you can design training that is successful and focused on the learners taking your course.

Here are a few tips for creating successful, audience-focused eLearning:

• Get feedback. Do a post-training evaluation to find out what learners like and what they don’t like, so you can make adjustments for next time.

• Provide choices. Studies show that learners like to be in control. They like options and personalized training. By offering the choice between watching a video on the subject and participating in a real-life scenario experience, you empower your learner to succeed—the way he or she wants.

• An authoring tool like Lectora® Inspire can help you add interactivity and engaging elements to your training. Sign up for a free trial today.

• Track your training results to see which strategies are providing the best ROI on your training program. Then use those results to direct future eLearning initiatives at your organization.

For more articles on instructional design theory and creating successful training courses, subscribe to the Everything eLearning Blog.

  • Lisa S

    I really think you hit the nail on the head when you encourage designing courses that are audience focused. That first analysis when one looks at who is receiving the training is, in my opinion, one of the most important steps in the whole process. Once you know something about the limitations and preferences of your audience, you have a key tool to determining the design and development needs of the course.

    • Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I agree–audience analysis is such an important step.