Learning Preferences vs. Learning Styles

I was recently reading a blog post by one of my favourite e-learning developers when the topic of “learning styles” was mentioned. The blog post wasn’t about learning styles, but the author made a passing comment about their learning style and the way they learn best. In this blog post, I explore why learning styles are really just learning preferences.

If you’re reading this I’m pretty sure at some point in your life, an educator has categorised you as having a particular learning style. There are three popular learning styles; Visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic. You may have been given a quiz by a teacher or you may have been asked the question “how do you learn best?” Sound familiar?

If you’re not familiar with learning styles, here’s a brief overview:

  • If you are a visual learner, you learn best by visual stimulation, like watching videos and reading.
  • If you’re an auditory learner, you learn best by hearing things; music, podcasts, lectures.
  • If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you learn best by performing practical tasks and exercises.

I completed a teacher training qualification back in 2013, six years ago, and learning styles were still introduced as a learning concept. So why do they annoy me so much? Categorising someone as an “auditory learner” can give the individual the impression that they can only learn something in a particular way – “I’m an auditory learner, I don’t learn well by reading! “

We learn different things in different ways and if learning content has been designed correctly, if the teacher is a good teacher and the learner is motivated to learn, they will learn.

I did some research on the topic and found a fantastic TEDx Talk by Dr. Tesia Marshik, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Dr. Marshik explains that learning styles are ingrained in our education system; so much so that few people challenge the idea, especially around the lack of evidence! In her video she explains:

The idea of learning styles is sexy. It sounds good. It feels good. Saying that people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different, and differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom

Quote from TEDx Talk by Dr. Marshik.

I’ve experienced this first hand. When I worked as an assessor the apprentices used to have to complete a learning styles questionnaire. Some apprentices would blame their poor classroom performance on these learning styles. I had one apprentice say he failed one of his exams because he had to revise from a book – he was apparently a kinesthetic learner and only learnt by doing things, not from reading books! Which leads nicely to my conclusion.

Learning styles should be thought of as learning preferences; If you like watching videos you’re going to feel as though you are a “visual learner” but that is your learning preference, at that particular time, not your only learning style for the rest of your life. Although, another point to note is just because a learner has a learning preference, doesn’t even mean that it is even the correct medium to learn from!

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