The idea that different people learn differently seems obvious -- but new, comprehensive research says otherwise. In fact, the researchers conclude, there is no evidence that individuals differ in ability to learn materials via various learning styles. And that's a lesson HR leaders should incorporate into their plans.
"It ain't what we don't know that hurts us, it's what we know that just ain't so." Attributed variously to Yogi Berra (hard to believe), Will Rogers (easier to believe) and Mark Twain (most likely the source), this quote reminds us how powerful preconceived ideas are and how they persist even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
I'm reminded of this quote by an article about learning styles passed on to me recently by a colleague.
The idea that different people learn differently seems absolutely obvious. Anyone who has been to college where they had a choice of showing up for lectures or reading the material on their own has a strong preference as to which approach worked better for them.
And those with children, especially when they are in high-powered schools, have heard kids described as "auditory learners" or "visual learners," identifying the approach that seems most suited to them.
These differences matter not just for schoolchildren but for adults as well, especially those human resource professionals in charge of learning functions and training more generally.
There is a lot of interest in making sure that training is cost-effective, and many efforts are underway to give individuals choices as to how they learn material to respond to the idea that individuals learn best in different ways.
Learning-style experts suggest, for example, that individuals be assessed as to which styles work best for them and that training be offered in different formats (lectures, online, tutoring, books) so that formats can be matched to styles.
At some basic level, individual differences surely affect how we learn.
Learning disorders such as dyslexia, auditory processing problems, etc., highlight the fact that some individuals struggle to learn through a given approach but not through others. The learning-styles idea goes further, though, and suggests that even among individuals who are capable of learning through almost any approach (i.e., where there is no learning pathology), there is considerable variation across individuals in which styles work best for us.
There is a big industry in the world of education and training to help identify the different styles that individuals have and match them to different approaches to learning. There are several competing taxonomies that outline what those differences are. Some focus more on the presentational method (e.g., through words, pictures, auditory, etc.) and others more on the context (e.g., abstract or theoretical vs. applied or concrete).
The basic idea persists, however, that individuals will learn more and do so more quickly if there is a match between their style and the way the information is delivered.
But into this topic comes a quite thorough review of all the research on learning styles. The conclusion of "Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence," published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2009, is that there is no evidence for the idea that individuals differ in their learning styles or that they learn better when matched with methods that suit their style.
This is a pretty big conclusion, so it is worth breaking down what it means.
There is no doubt that individuals have preferences as to how they learn and that they think they do better with some learning approaches rather than with others. But perceptions of ourselves are notoriously inaccurate, so whether people believe they have experienced these differences is not evidence that, in fact, the differences exist.
The authors, Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork, note that there are relatively few studies that truly test the hypothesis that individuals do better when matched with learning approaches that meet their alleged styles -- but the studies that do a reasonably good job of testing find no effects.
There may be some as yet undiscovered aspect of learning differences that does matter to outcomes, and it may also be the case that individuals may at some point "get" some material through one approach and not through another. But aside from true learning disabilities, there is no evidence there is anything systematic to the learning-style concept.
Why did the belief in learning styles become so powerful without any supporting evidence for it? One reason we believe this as individuals might be that it is a convenient and ego-protecting explanation as to why we or the people we care about have not done well in particular learning environments.
What does this study mean for practice, especially for chief learning officers and others making decisions about training and development?
The conclusions surely do not suggest that all material be taught the same way, but they do suggest that the resources and time spent on trying to provide different approaches to learning the same material or trying to identify how individuals learn could be better spent someplace else.
Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. www.talentondemand.org.