Learning Styles: What is All of the Fuss About?

2017 Reprise of this blog post from 2015. What are your thoughts on the topic?

I’ve been reading quite a few articles, tweets and blog posts about whether learning styles exist. Most I read make their arguments against and tweet and retweet often on the subject. There are still others who hold onto their belief in the various models and theories tweeting and retweeting too.

Frankly, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about. If believing in the presence of diverse learning styles makes you a better designer and learning facilitator--great!

What is a “learning style”? The more popular among the models is Fleming’s VAK based on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). V = Visual, A = Auditory, and K = Kinesthetic. But Kolb’s Experiential Learning and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences enter into the conversation too. And they have just as many supporters who are just as passionate as those who stay true to VAK. (comprehensive listing of theorists and their theories). These theorists and many more all hold a place in the evolution of this industry we call Workplace Learning and Performance* (that’s T&D for the rest of you).

I am of the opinion that our roles in workplace learning and performance come with the responsibility--no, the obligation-- to design, develop, facilitate and offer learning in ways that people learn best. And do the best we can to remove obstacles to them learning. That’s it.

How to accomplish this well isn’t difficult but it does take intention. In the spirit of the “3 R’s” (Readin’, ‘Ritein, & ‘Rithmatic) I offer the following quick litmus test:

Relevant and Timely: Will the learners be able to apply what they’re leaning back on the job? Immediately? Do they need to have this knowledge right now in order to be successful? Several years ago, I learned how to create models in MS Access used to “mine” pages and pages of data. I haven’t had to use that set of skills and knowledge in quite some time. If I needed to be able to do this again tomorrow I would be freaking out and finding the online tutorials for remedial education somewhere. It is no longer stored anywhere in my brain that I can easily access.

Repetition: This has always been key concepts has always been necessary to for learners to learn. When I was a child (111 years ago), my family had decks of flash cards for learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and fractions. (I hated those most) And my nephew recently began his journey in the early entry program for the Navy Seals. His mom built sets of quiz cards to learn the Navy “language” he needed to know in his first 6 weeks. (Important success factors like what the rank ribbons mean and slang terms for the various uniforms.) We have the ability to recreate this and mnemonic devices digitally these days but either way, what’s important is repetition has always had a place in learning and it always will.

Reinforcement: Is the learning going to be Reinforced back on the job? As learning professionals, we can’t afford to pass this responsibility off on the learners’ leadership entirely. What type of tools have been made available to the learner so he/she can go back and access what they need exactly when they need it. Be it a list of internal and external resources on the organization’s intranet or a solid handout, we owe it to the learners to have ways of referring back to the content and instruction. Otherwise, why are they going through this exercise?

In closing, I leave you with a quote from a very long time ago that is credited to Confucious. Note: he points out the need for variety and repetition too!

 I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

Other's blog posts on the topic:






*Workplace Learning & Performance (WLP) is a contemporary definition crafted to encompass the various aspects and practices that are a part of the field. Specifically but not limited to, learning, performance, training, instructional design, development, human resources, organizational development, manufacturing, healthcare, (insert your favorite here).