Is ‘learning styles’ a myth that has finally been debunked?

If you’re delivering professional development or training to adults, you’ll want to make sure it’s going to work effectively for all your learners – if you don’t have extensive experience or qualifications in education and training, you may be a bit confused about learning styles and whether you should still be trying to cater for them all or not. The answer isn’t as clear cut as you’d think.

Google ‘learning styles debunked’ and you’ll get a raft of scholarly articles suggesting that yes, indeed, it has been debunked. There is no specific research to suggest that matching the way you teach to specific learning styles is beneficial, although it isn’t exactly time to throw the baby out with the bath water either.

As this article from the University of Texas states:

“While all students benefit when what they are learning is presented in multiple ways – visually, aurally, kinaesthetically – scientists have not been able to pigeonhole learning into discrete categories or “styles.”

Learning depends on what is being taught, how much students know about what is being taught, and how motivated they are to learn it. Effective teachers use this information to differentiate instruction. In other words, they focus on differences that actually matter for learning – the content, students’ experiences with the content, and their motivation related to learning the content.”

What that means in layman’s terms, is that you don’t need to think about creating an activity specifically to cater to visual learners, or that visual learners won’t ‘get it’ if you create an activity that suits audio learners, but that mixing it up is key – that different content lends itself to different styles and learners will ingest information more easily in different contexts.

Take me, for example.

The visual learner.

When it comes to getting directions. Show me a map and I have a near on photographic memory. Explain it to me? I’m lost. I learn by seeing the map, and having it imprinted into my memory.

The audio learner.

I failed history at school. We had to memorise dates and events from a book and I couldn’t remember any of it. If it’s a story and someone tells it to me though? I’ll be able to recount it (and probably with a few embellishments and hand gestures to spice it up – I’m half Italian and have Irish blood, I can’t help it). I learn by hearing the story, and remembering the person and how they told it.

The kinaesthetic learner.

Cooking? Recipe books? No way. Inspiration maybe, but just give me the ingredients and let me experiment. Hand me the spoon, let me chop, sauté and taste till I’m happy with it. I learn by doing it myself, and making mistakes and adjustments until I get it right.

You see? I’m a mix of all three, but it depends on the context. Visual, audio and kinaesthetic aren’t the only learning styles though, there are plenty more including but not limited to generalist and detailers, solitary and social, verbal, logical, feeling, and don’t get me started on multiple intelligences! Does it matter which ones I am?

Does it matter which ones your learners are?

The key is not about having an in depth understanding of all of the styles and intelligences, and whether your clients are of one ‘type’ or not; they may be various types in various contexts, or a combination depending on the learning content and what you want them to do with it.

The key is actually more about realising that there are many different ways to learn, that no one fits into any one box, and that every learner will present to you their own unique learning challenges, especially your adult learners. It’s about tapping into how they learn best, and applying some core adult education theories and strategies into the way you structure your training.

Kids and teens tend to be much more ‘spongelike’ when it comes to learning, it’s adults who can be a bit tougher cookies to crack. 

We’ve all got them – clients, learners or colleagues who could do with up skilling in a certain area of their work, but they’re set in their ways, recalcitrant when it comes to learning and quite frankly, getting them to sit up and take notice of anything let alone incorporate it into their every day work is about as likely as getting Miley Cyrus into sensible leather pumps, a calf length skirt and a matching high-collared blouse.


Getting them to learn is about getting them motivated, showing them the benefits of being on the other side of the learning, and then letting them discover it in a way that works for them, with your guidance.

It’s constructivism at it’s finest: the theory that involves the learner being at the centre of their own learning experience and constructing new knowledge based on their prior experiences and experimenting with new information and ideas.

Not convinced? Take this example.

Kiribati 2010

I was involved in a project in the Pacific where we were upgrading the teaching skills of the lecturers at the local teacher training college. One of my tasks was to observe classroom practice, give feedback and recommend ideas for improvement in terms of technique and methodology.

The last training that had taken place was many years previously and unfortunately most of the techniques were of the ‘chalk and talk’ type, and yep, you guessed it, the students were all asleep at their desks if they hadn’t already collapsed from the exhaustion of copying copious amounts of notes directly from the black board into their note books. OK, slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.

‘Tell me and I forget’

During the teacher training sessions, we did a lot of explaining. We observed teaching practice and gave lots of feedback about how to include ‘student centred learning activities’ and creating ‘opportunities for discussion’ – the feedback mostly either fell on deaf ears or was used once or twice before old habits returned.

‘Teach me and I remember’

Deciding that demonstration might be key, I initiated supplementary classes whereby new games and activities were first demonstrated before being discussed, deconstructed and reconstructed for different learning levels and subject areas. When the teachers could see how new, simple ideas could be applied to their own classrooms, pennies started to drop and lesson plans started to improve dramatically.

As is always the case, some learners take longer than others and I had one in particular who didn’t seem to grasp the concept of communicative activities, or including them in his lesson plans. I discussed this with him many times, however he was determined that his methods were more efficient and that his students would not respond well to the activities that I was suggesting.

So I called his bluff.

I asked him to create one lesson plan with me, based on the communicative approach and using the lesson structure, games and activities that we had been demonstrating and suggesting. After delivering one lesson like that, if he still didn’t believe it was the best way, he could go back to doing whatever he liked.

He agreed but reluctantly;  to be honest I think he only agreed because he wanted to prove to me that I couldn’t possibly know what his students really wanted and to show me how these types of techniques wouldn’t really work in his classroom.

His lesson was hilarious. He went into ‘Maria’ mode, almost in a mocking sense, being lively, animated and very much over enthusiastic. His students responded by waking up, getting involved, shrieking with laughter and actively engaging in all the activities.

After the lesson, he came for his feedback session and I smiled and said ‘So Kaono, how do you think that went?’

Usually sullen and unenthusiastic, he looked at me with a glint in his eye and said ‘Maria, that was fun. I’ve just realised how bad my teaching has been for 20 years. I must change now. It’s good. I like it.’

This wasn’t a flash in the pan either. To his credit, by the time I left, I would have put him close to the top of the list of lecturers who were demonstrating best practice in the classroom and he had also been elevated to a position of middle management within the college.

‘Involve me and I learn’

It works. Learn how to tap into the prior knowledge of your  learners and watch them engage like you’ve never seen engagement before.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching health and wellness, business strategies, SEO or skydiving techniques.

  • When you are in that ‘teaching’ or ‘telling’ phase, mix it up as much as you can, so what you’re getting across can appeal to as many different types of learners as possible.
  • Don’t just tell them, show them how with good and bad examples so they can start to see how they’re meant to be doing it correctly.
  • Then give them the opportunity to road test it while they’ve got you there for support; it’s human nature to want to test our knowledge and prove to ourselves we can do something isn’t it?
  • Give them tasks to help them go away and implement the new information immediately.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning styles and educational theories. The simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article? No. Not entirely.

Having a broad understanding of learning styles and educational theories can only help enhance any group training you deliver, although there is definitely some truth in not becoming a slave to it in your instructional planning phase. Be informed, know that there are many different types of learners and remember to mix it up as much as possible when you’re delivering new information, making sure to give as much opportunity as possible for the learners to try out their new skills in multiple different ways.

Maria Doyle
Adult Education and Training

If you are interested in learning more about Maria and her workshops on Essemy, please visit this link.