The great misconception of learning styles

It is a difficult, if not impossible task to apply learning styles to training programs, according to one leading academic.

For the uninitiated, learning styles claim to group ways people learn, and attempt to explain why individuals’ learn differently. 

These styles have been developed by the likes of David Kolb, Neil Fleming and Anthony Gregorc.

However, one of the main problems with them is that they are both overused and abused, according to David Boud, Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology.

“Frankly, there are very few situations in which, even if they were true, even if there was a good foundation for them, you could actually get them to work,” he said.

“What situations can you control a training program enough to offer completely different experiences to different members of a group?

“One can envisage a few occasions where that might be possible but on a day-to-day basis there are very, very few training programs that you could apply them to.”

For Boud, there is a problem at two ends. One end is that the data doesn’t stack up very well in terms of how well-founded they are, and the empirical evidence doesn’t really support them, he said.

He added that at the other end even if they were true, it would be very difficult to do much with them.

Boud provides an example when he was teaching a course many years ago in Canada and he happened to, because of the different groups he was working with, complete Kolb’s learning styles three times in about a week.

“I thought if it’s true that learning styles are pretty invariant than what should happen is I should get consistent results,” he said.

“What happened was I ended up in three different quadrants on those three occasions,” he said.

"And then it got me to think, well, what’s going on here? And I realised that because they were different occasions I was thinking about learning different kinds of things or in different contexts.

“And of course you expect someone to learn differently in different situations. If I am studying for a mathematics course than that’s distinct from studying an order to buy my next car,” he said.

He told L&D Professional idea that the idea that one can have a learning style that’s universally applicable to any kind of challenge that it throws up is a rather odd assumption.

Rather, his view is that what education is about is enabling people to learn appropriately depending on the circumstances that they find themselves in.

This means that we need to help people become more adaptable, more flexible and do whatever is appropriate given the situation they need to address. 

“The other thing is that they have got this kind of superficial appeal where they are a very simple instrument you could administer someone,” he said.

“It gives you something that looks scientific, it looks as if it is giving you an insight into yourself. It’s like taking a quiz in a magazine - it’s a fun thing but don’t take it too seriously.”

Boud emphasised that he is not arguing that different people might not have different learning styles.

“If you are completing one of these instruments in order to illustrate the fact that people learn differently that’s fine.

“However, to use it for the things that the people proposing these things want to use it for is probably going too far.”