The Future of Learning Styles – Is it Time to Change?
Published: 22 January 2019
You are asked to create an education program for your nursing team.
If we consider the checklist for the constructive alignment of the outcome-driven education program, it may consist of:
Intended learning outcomes: including aims and objectives of what is to be learned;
Learner centred: the needs and learning styles of participants;
Teaching strategy and activities;
Form of assessment;
Budget and resources available;
Lesson plan outline; and
Evaluation and feedback.
For now, let’s focus on centring our education program around our learners, and the consideration of the needs and learning styles of participants. This is a common consideration for any educator who really wants to engage participants and create effective education.
However, as educators we need to question: when we talk about learning styles, are we following best practice and evidence-based education?
“Unfortunately, learning myths like these hinder progress in education and distract educators from instructional strategies demonstrably shown to improve learning.” (Lynch, 2016).
Learning styles have been described as: “the view that different people learn information in different ways” (Pashler et al., 2008). The theoretical background of learning styles relates to the field of psychology, but in nurse education we have most likely utilised Kolb’s (1976) experiential learning theory of four learner types (converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator).
Other taxonomies of learner styles commonly used are:
Visual learners: who learn by seeing;
Auditory learners: who learn best through hearing;
Kinesthetic learners: who learn by doing it.
Or Neil Fleming’s VARK model consisting of four sensory modalities (Fleming & Baume, 2006):
The greatest impact on learning occurs when the learning instruction is matched with the learner’s style preference (Pashler et al., 2008).
The Evidence Around Learning Styles
“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” (Kurt Lewin, 1951)
Quality education instruction requires the educator to have recognised the learning style and accordingly align education delivery to this style (Kirschner & Van Merriënboer, 2013).
Learning styles are thought to change over the life of an individual, and some students are flexible enough to try varied methods and adapt to them as a way of learning (Delahoyde, 2009). Our preferences around particular learning styles may differ in our education preferences when accessing new information compared to accessing existing knowledge (Kozhenvnikov, Evans, & Kosslyn, 2014).
A review by Howard-Jones (2014) showed that over 90% of teachers in five countries believed that learning is improved when instructions are tailored to a learner’s preferred style. Fleming & Baume (2006) highlight that measuring actual learning is a very difficult thing to do, especially when comparing across a group of individuals with vastly different learning needs, levels and objectives. According to Pashler et al. (2008) studies need to be conducted with this style-matching or meshing focus in their hypothesis to measure individual variability for a particular topic.
However, learning styles raise self-awareness and create a positive dialogue with learners (Coffield et al., 2004).
There is little evidence to support the hypothesis that the consideration of learning styles improves learning (Arbuthnott & Krätzig,2015; Pashler et al, 2008). Is what we prefer actually better for us? According to Kirschner (2017), learners self-reported preferred way of learning is not often the best predictor of effective learning.
“There is quite a difference between the way that someone prefers to learn and that which actually leads to effective and efficient learning. Second, a preference for how one studies is not a learning style.” (Kirschner, 2017)
The evidence that supports learning styles lacks empirical support, and the theory is not actually about changing ability (Willingham et al., 2015).
Think learning styles are standardised? Think again, Coffield et al. (2004) identified 71 different learning style theories and this provides questions around the homogeneity of the literature when reviewing the outcomes around learning styles.
The evidence suggests that instead of focusing on learning styles, we should focus on cognitive abilities (Kirschner & Van Merriënboer, 2013).
Cognitive abilities include how learners learn and their thought processes when carrying out tasks, problem solving, remembering and processing new information. These cognitive abilities can also be more objectively measured by analysis of how people learn most effectively.
Dekker et al. (2012) highlight the increase in brain-based education programs and “neuro-myths” where the neuroscience field has been transferred into education settings, such as school, higher education and workplace without proper research measurement.
Another criticism of learning styles is that it labels and typecasts students, which is the opposite intention when we are trying to create individualised learning opportunities.
This labelling may also stop the teacher challenging the student by providing other methods of teaching.
Providing a range of approaches available to learners seems to be an accommodating method of teaching to provide individualised learning.
If students do have a preferred learning style, note that they are not necessarily fixed but can change over time. When designing instruction, it may be prudent to consider the appropriateness on the amount of time and resources educators are using solely focusing on a particular learning style.
Focus may shift towards learning strategies and cognitive abilities, which focus on how students tackle a specific learning task. Education measurements could focus on actual abilities and how new content is related to prior knowledge.
In summary, more targeted research is needed in the field of learning styles, but heavy scepticism should prevail around the current level of evidence. However, this does not exclude future findings in the field of learning styles research.
As educators we should continue to focus on learners as individuals, the knowledge and experience they bring, and to always keeping in mind the desired educational outcomes.
Challenging students with different educational approaches may enable adaptability to different learning situations. So, as educators we need to mix it up, interleave learning and not be fearful of providing challenges to our learners.