aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Learning Styles Bunk

Posted by Ellen on January 1, 2009

I’m sure to be in the minority here, but the whole cacophony of “learning styles” is myth and bunk. Fortunately, though I’m in the minority, I’m not alone, but rather in a group of scientists and learning theorists.

Here’s my argument: It’s about the content, not the sensory perceptions of the learner.

Here’s an example. Le’ts say you see yourself as a tactile (need to touch and handle things) learner. Now here’s a Spanish word: asunto.

What is its English translation? According to, it means “matter” in the broadest, most general sense.

Now tell me how being a tactile learner helped you to understand what that word means. How does being tactile help you use it in a Spanish-language sentence?

Would it help if you heard the word?

What about this word: etkinleştirme

What does it mean?

Learning to speak a language requires hearing it and uttering it. Learning to read a language requires seeing it and understanding what the words mean, what the written punctuation around the words indicate. These skills require more than touching, more than seeing, more than hearing, more than speaking.

Learning to speak or read a language requires you to participate in the language.


So it’s about the language — the content of the learning — and how you need to process it in order to learn it. It’s not just about you, the learner. (Sorry to damage the learner ego there, which also trounces on the learner-centric theory a bit, I’m sure.)

Learning to drive a car requires getting behind the wheel and operating it, whether you are a “tactile learner” or a “visual learner” or an “auditory learner” or an “olfactory learner” (why don’t we ever hear about those, by the way?). Learning what the traffic signs mean requires looking at the signs and identifying what they signify, whether you consider yourself a “visual” learner or not.

As I said, if I’m the emperor without clothes, then I’m not the only one streaking in this parade. Here are some resources to check  out:

And for an interesting read that touches on learning styles as well as other learning myths, see Donald Clark’s distillation of his 10 Facts:

When I was back in high school, a teacher said, during a discussion about Hitler and other dictators, “Never forget that you could be one voice in the crowd and still be right.”  Crowdsourcing has its place, but sometimes, commonly held beliefs are just wrong. Hanging on to the disproved theory of  “learning styles” may place you squarely among the majority, but that doesn’t mean you’re right.

And admitting that “learning styles” is a myth doesn’t mean you’re not a learner-centric educator. It means you’re even more passionate about effective learning because you’re willing to turn your focus to implementing practices that actually work.

11 Responses to “Learning Styles Bunk”

  1. Hey, Ellen, what prompted this post?

  2. Ellen said

    Hi, David! As with many topics, a convergence of instances resulted in a blog post. In this case, the post is the result of discovering how unquestioningly the ASAE PD core competencies accept and promote the notion of learning styles. It’s irresponsible to ignore a large chunk of viable research that speaks to another side of the issue. Seems to me if learning styles were all they’re cracked up to be, then teaching to them wouldn’t be the problem it is and getting to concrete learning outcomes would be a slam dunk, but that’s not the way it is. Trainers and educators have struggled with ways to incorporate learning styles into their instruction — their lack of success points to faulty theory.

    Where do you stand on the idea of learning styles, David?

  3. This strikes me as a very peculiar debate. Of course people have different learning styles – the issue is how, if at all, association education should deal with that.

    I have a dyslexic child who learns very differently than other kids. I expect his school to accomodate his disability – that will make a HUGE difference in his ability to learn. I would not expect an association workshop session to accomodate his needs, though.

    Associations communicate with their audiences in a manner they feel will be most effective for the largest number of people.

    Association education is usually brief, intermittent, and informally structured. Attendees often seek information they can utilize in their day-to-day work. In my experience, they favor practical tips, visuals, and, when appropriate, hands-on learning opportunities.

    Opinion leaders usually seek interactive venues where they can be participants. Most others prefer passive roles offering interesting and informative lectures, with a bit of entertainment mixed in (this is the big debate issue in association education).

    Hopefully, association leaders will utilize learning methods based on audience desires, not educator opinions of what audiences should desire. What’s the problem with that?

  4. Ellen said

    David — Exactly! We’re actually on the same wavelength about this.

    The difference between us and those who ascribe to the concept of learning theory is that they believe that training sessions need to be designed so that those who are “visual” learners are shown things; those who are “auditory” learners can hear things, etc. (see pages 51 and 52 in Tracey & Edwards’ Core Competencies in Association Professional Development as an example; note that earlier in the book the authors focus on the need to deliver training based on content, rather than learning preference, so it’s unclear — other than conventional thinking — why more attention is giving to learning styles later).

    My rant advocates thinking twice about blindly accepting the theory as law, because doing so can create more harm and confusion than effective learning. The very notion of learning styles is what led to including audio narration, images, and on-screen text in elearning courses. Dr. Ruth Clark would tell you that’s cognitive overload. Also a bad thing.

    So how do we get it right? We consider what the learning outcomes need to be, and figure out how to get from here to there. In considering your son’s dyslexia, educators will present content to him in ways that he can absorb it. But that doesn’t mean his preferred learning style is necessarily kinesthetic — it might be in some learning situations, while he might “prefer” auditory learning in others.

    Your questions are what I was hoping to see after this post. Thank you for adding to the conversation!

  5. And, of course, my $1000 learning styles challenge is still open after 2.5 years.

    Original Challenge:

    One-Year Update:

  6. Hi Ellen

    Thanks for poking us in the eye with a sharp stick! It’s a bracing way to launch 2009.

    Let me add to the mix that no learning occurs without attention. The overblown learning style idealogy all boils down to simply acknowledging barriers to learning, preferences that enhance the process.

    Many associations sell education products to those entering a field, distilling the critical lessons learned to master a subject or process, perfect for elearning applications.

    The rest of us focus on the other half of the equation–engaging practicing professionals to exchange ideas and determine what’s working. When you strip away pretense and power from annointed subject experts, learners are the teachers and that makes the association collective relevant.

    Sure, crowdsourcing is not how you learn to perform open heart surgery, but it is well suited to diagnosis, problem-solving and handicapping markets.

    Keep stirring the pot!


  7. James said

    Would Design by Humans or be examples of crowdsourcing?

  8. Ellen said

    Will — Thanks for the update! I’m not surprised you haven’t cashed out on your challenge, and don’t expect you’ll have to. I appreciate you providing links to your posts — your work is critical for the rest of us to understand what the research really reveals about online learning.

    Ann — Ouch! Hadn’t intended to poke anyone in the eye, but I’m game to stir the pot. And I agree that less experienced learners usually need more expert instruction (which isn’t to say the exchange shouldn’t be as interactive as possible) than those more experienced, who gain more from open conversation and exchange with peers when problem-solving. Even so, we can all learn something from someone outside of our field of expertise, as I’m sure you agree.

    James — Thanks for your post, and welcome to aLearning! I’m certainly no expert on crowdsourcing, but I’d venture to say that these are probably examples of one form of it. Crowdsourcing has generally referred to calling on the minds of many for problem-solving and innovation. Here’s another example: if you’re on LinkedIn — a social network site primarily for professionals — you could post a question such as, “Our organization is faced with picking one tee shirt from thousands; people vote, but we’re not sure how to keep one person from voting over and over for their own shirt. Any ideas on how to resolve this?” Then you’re drawing on the wisdom of the crowd for suggestions. Better yet, see the book: Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, by Jeff Howe.

  9. Random T. said

    The topic is quite trendy on the Internet right now. What do you pay the most attention to when choosing what to write ?

  10. […] Ellen Behrens over at aLearning is fighting the good fight on that front, giving great advice, debunking myths, and arguing for the respect that association e-learning deserves. Best of all, Ellen actually runs […]

  11. […] Unbeknownst to me there has been talk about learning styles being bunk for years (Here, here, here, here, here, and many more, and this one’s nice because it links to some nice research).  So […]

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