May 11th, 2009

Do Learning Styles Matter?


There’s been a lot written about learning styles. More than 650 books published in the United States and Canada alone. Do a Google search on “learning styles” and you get over 2,000,000 results. Most people know if they’re a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, and instructors often try to design their courses to accommodate the different learning styles so as to ensure that each student’s strongest modality is represented in some fashion.

And yet, not only is it difficult and time-consuming to accurately identify and address the individual learning styles of an entire class, but there’s now a question of whether it’s really necessary.

In the recent online seminar Learning Styles: Fact and Folklore for eLearning, Les Howles, a senior e-learning consultant at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and Allan Jeong, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University, talked about the many misconceptions regarding learning styles. The two concluded that “based on several decades of empirical evidence, matching learning activities/strategies with specific learning styles does not often result in improved learning.”

That’s not to say that students don’t have different learning styles, preferences or traits, but when designing the components of an e-learning course, it’s more important to select a modality that is most suitable for the content and supports the learning goals, Howles says. Most students are multimodal and are able to learn in a variety of formats.

Active vs. Reflective Learners

While downplaying some of the intuitive appeal of learning styles, one area where Jeong has seen marked differences is in how active and reflective learners engage in online discussions. In analyzing message exchanges, he found that reflective learners produced significantly more responses than exchanges between active learners.

By requiring students to post a designated number of messages and to do so using one of four message tags, Jeong is able to use discussion boards in a way that plays to the strengths and preferences of both active and reflective learners. The tags also make it easy for instructors to assess discussion board participation and performance. The four post tags are:

  1. ARG – a message that presents an argument.
  2. EXPL – a reply/message that explains, supports or clarifies an argument.
  3. BUT – a reply/message that questions or challenges a previous argument or challenge.
  4. EVID – a reply/message that provides evidence to establish the validity of an argument or challenge.

Advice for Online Course Designers

Howles and Jeong offered the following advice for instructional designers:

  • Focus most on good instructional message design.
  • Select instructional methods and modalities appropriate for the content.
  • Focus on developing schemas not just communicating content.
  • Focus on what students do in the learning task.
  • Don’t discard learning styles entirely, but also focus on a variety of other individual learner differences such as prior knowledge and motivation.
  • Read learning styles research (abstracts).

  • Hamilton

    I do believe that learning styles matter. I cannot speak for them in relation to online learning and the design of online materials, but certainly in traditional face-to-face teaching and learning contexts learning styles do have a role to play. Yesterday I gave a group a series of perception images to examine and most of them identified particular features that were required in these images. However, one participant found it difficult to identify any of the required features. These participants then did a learning styles inventory without prior knowledge of learning styles. What I found was that most of the participants who were able to identify the required features in the images had a dominant preference for visual learning. The one individual who had the most difficulty with the images had a preference for kinesthetic learning. I am aware that this cannot be conclusive, however in my books it does speak volumes.


  • Jerry

    Fairly weak evidence. N of 1. Anecdotal.
    It doesn't speak volumns. It says nothing.

    • md0504

      I agree! In fact in the book 50 great Myths of Popular Psychology (Lilienfeld et al. 2010) lists "Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles" as myth #18. Enough Said! Sorry, but we should be practicing EVIDENCE BASED teaching, not relying on our biased observations of one or two students to guide our teaching.

  • Mel

    Me too, I'm in education and we are required to consider learning styles when developing lesson plans. It's plausible! Mel