Are You Fed Up With Learning Styles Already?

Learning Styles Theories: Are You Fed Up Already?
Yaroslav Astakhov/
Summary: The concept of learning styles has had a pernicious effect on education and corporate learning spheres. It has damaged the fabric of Instructional Design practices and it can also be a detriment to your efficiency as a learner. Let's dive into the facts and why they do or don't work.

On Learning Styles Theories: What Instructional Designers Must Know

My Learning and Development (L&D) journey began shortly after serving in the U.S. Navy as a Field Medical Technician, aka 8404 Corpsman, attached to U.S. Marine Corps units. As part of my duties in the Navy, I had to train Marines on self-medical care and also develop my direct reports. Like most people, my plan to start my career was to complete a graduate degree in Education with a focus on Training and Development in 2007. One of the theories taught through my degree was the notion that every learner has a different way of learning and, therefore, a "learning style."

The mantra at the time was that, as a trainer/presenter/designer, one should address multiple learning styles, meaning some people are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic—aka hands-on—learners. Well, a few years after graduating, I realized that was not accurate, but how could it be? After all, I was taught this through a higher education program; should I get a refund? Now I think I should, but hey, it's too late. Don't worry though, there's still plenty of popularity going around today about learning styles.

For starters, although one can find research and articles debunking their validity, there are also many peer-reviewed articles citing and validating their use. Additionally, many U.S. teacher education programs support their use and, as a consequence, today's workforce is full of people who were taught as children to believe they have a learning style. My intent with this article is not to change anyone's mind, but rather present both sides of the reality about learning styles as it applies today.

Learning Styles Models And Theories

There is no shortage of models and theories about learning styles. Some seem more substantial than others and their popularity is not based on scientific validation but rather on personal appeal. The one thing they have in common is that they come from K-12 and academic settings.

1. Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic, Or VARK

VARK is the most popular learning style model to date. It's based on the observations of the late teacher Neil Fleming, who passed away last year but left VARK as a legacy that lives on in schools all over the world today. He observed students in New Zealand's educational system and made some assumptions without any particular scientific rigor of study. In his words, "For nine years I was one of Her Majesty's school inspectors in the New Zealand education system. During this time, I watched some 9,000 classes. I was puzzled when I observed excellent teachers who did not reach some learners and poor teachers who did." As a result, he created a VARK questionnaire, and the rest is history.

2. Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory, Or LSI

As early as 1976, David Kolb proposed the use of an assessment to identify and "describe the ways people learn and how they deal with ideas and situations," (Philbin, Meier, Huffman, and Bovarie, 1995). Kolb concocted his theory of experiential learning based on the work of Dewey, Lewin, Bruner, Lehman, and many others. As you can probably tell by now, Kolb was one of the first ones to look into and propose a diagnostic instrument with his LSI survey. More importantly, his work targeted business managers and the learning process, hence the title of his first publication of the LSI, Management and the Learning Process, in 1976. The LSI has four categories:

  • CE: Concrete Experience (feeling, as opposed to thinking)
    A focus on being involved in experiences and dealing with immediate human situations in a personal way. These people are good at relating to others and are intuitive decision-makers.
  • RO: Reflective Observation (watching, observing, understanding, as opposed to practical application)
    These people like to look at things from different perspectives and appreciate different points of view.
  • AC: Abstract Conceptualization (thinking as opposed to feeling)
    The use of logic, ideas, and concepts. Building general theories as opposed to intuitively understanding unique, specific areas. A scientific vs. an artistic approach to problems.
  • AE: Active Experimentation (doing)
    Actively influencing people and changing situations. Practical applications as opposed to reflective understanding. Doing as opposed to observing. (Kolb, 1976).

Why Learning Styles Are Here To Stay

Although there has been some good research and meta-analyses determining that there's no clear evidence of the effectiveness of learning styles, they are prevalent today. Just watch the interviews in The Biggest Myth In Education with 12 million views or better yet, visit your local school and ask a teacher about them. Here are the reasons why I think we should stop fighting or, at least, getting upset about this notion.

1. Learning Styles Are Study Strategies

Based on some conversations I've had with educator friends of mine, learning styles are always tied to study strategies. For the teachers I spoke with, applying learning styles helps them determine a way to make learning easier for their kids. Although they do this with good intentions, teachers may not realize that they are limiting the way kids can learn in the future when presented with different learning challenges. For example, if a learner believes to be an auditory/aural learner, they will want to listen to podcasts or a presenter, even when hands-on exercises are the best learning strategy.

2. Learning Styles Are Now Beliefs

Since the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) vetted the use of learning styles as an effective teaching technique in 1982, teachers have been applying learning styles in the classroom. This may reflect the variable results we have in school systems around the country. However, the biggest damage, in my opinion, is teaching kids to recognize their learning style; doing that may lead to adults believing in the notion and refusing to do what's best in a given learning context where learning tasks exceed the reach of their learning style. To learn how to drive a car, you have to drive in a simulator and eventually the real thing.

3. Teacher Programs Support Learning Styles

This one is self-evident, given the aforementioned facts. If teachers are being taught by higher education programs to practice learning styles, then we may see no end to their proliferation, at least in schools and colleges.

What Should Instructional Designers Do, Then?

Regardless of your environment, training and learning activities need to be focused on performance tasks. Since 1965, the best way to design instruction was identified by Robert Gagné in his landmark book The Conditions of Learning. Gagné's research focused on skill acquisition and learning outcomes. His work led to the creation of the most complete model of Instructional Design: The Interservice Procedures of Instructional Systems Design (IPISD).


  • Gagne, R. 1965. The Conditions of Learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Kolb, D. A. 1976. "Management and the Learning Process." California Management Review, 18(3), 21–31.
  • Philbin, M., Meier, E., Huffman, S., & Boverie, P. 1995. "A survey of gender and learning styles." Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 32(7-8), 485–494.