Demystifying Learning Styles and Tailored Instruction

How often have you heard “he’s a visual learner” or “she learns better hands-on”? Over several decades, we’ve heard of three main learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (some sources provide more than three). Although some individuals can have a combination of two or all three, there is usually a dominant style. For example, a visual learner grasps concepts when presented with illustrations and struggles with concepts presented with a lecture. As a result, instructional designers include instructional approaches that touch these learning styles when designing a training course or module. As an example, a typical eLearning module includes text and graphics, narration, and basic interactive activities.


Learning Styles and Tailored Instruction

Regarding remediation or tailored instruction, instructional designers create different “modes” to cover the same concept. Therefore, students have a different way to receive the same information after not grasping it the first time. For example, imagine a student learning about a series of events in history through an oral lecture. After not achieving a passing grade on a series of multiple choice questions, the training directs the student to a visual chart of a timeline, perhaps containing illustrations. The idea behind this strategy is to ensure a match to the student’s learning style.


Image of college professor giving a tailored instruction.


Learning Styles Hypothesis

This type of remediation strategy supports the “Learning Styles Hypothesis.” This hypothesis states that learning is ineffective if a student’s learning style is not taken into account (Pashler et al, 2009). Research shows that “learning styles” has widespread appeal since it classifies individuals into certain distinct groups. Furthermore, “learning styles” purports that someone can only learn effectively if designers tailor content to their unique style of learning. In other words, the onus is on instructional designers and educators to ensure information can be “processed” by the student. However, in the last decade, there has been a movement of sorts to “debunk” this notion of learning styles. It is common to now hear them referred to as “study or learning preferences.”


Learning Styles or Learning Preferences?

Survey results have proven that individuals are able to state how they prefer to take information; however, from a learning science or neurological perspective, no scientific evidence exists to indicate that such preferences are correlated to brain processing function. The notion that a learner prefers taking in content as opposed to requiring unique or tailored instruction (from a brain science perspective) is an interesting revelation for instructional designers and educators. In a sense, could we now say that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic components are not needed in every design? Furthermore, could we say that instructional designers or educators can now lift that burden of reaching all audiences and pass that burden onto learners, asking them to modify their preferences as needed? This would certainly be revolutionary for the field of instructional design.


Students engaged in different learning styles.


Learning Preferences and Learner Engagement

An instructional designer may want to advise a client who still believes in “learning styles” that such “learning styles” do not really exist. That, in fact, they are simply preferences. Yet, preferences are still important. Fundamentally, learner engagement is key to knowledge transfer, skill acquisition, and behavior change. Learners with a particular preference will gravitate to content that meets that preference. Furthermore, they may steer away from an approach that does not.

For example, a Kindergarten student who has a kinesthetic learning preference may achieve simple addition using an abacus. Their engagement in touching and moving the beads meets their personal training preference. Additionally, flashcards would bore this student and they would instead tune out during the lesson. As another example, military personnel utilize simulations to learn skills, as these allow them to interact with their surroundings. In fact, research has proven these instructional methods are effective due to their engagement level (Ricci et al, 1996). Therefore, instructional designers and educators will be more successful in achievement of knowledge transfer, skill acquisition, and behavior change if they appeal to all of preferences through varied or tailored instructional approaches, no matter what we call it these days, be it “learning styles” or “learning preferences”.

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Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning Styles, Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Ricci, K.E., Salas, E. & Cannon-Bowers, J.A. (1996). Do computer-based games facilitate knowledge acquisition and retention? Military Psychology, 8, 295-308.

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