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Saturday, 04 August 2007


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Stephen Downes

The problem is that you are offering only $1000 for a study that would cost much more than that to conduct.

And that some of the conditions are unreasonable.

As a statement of your own biases, the article was worth writing. But it certainly could not serve as anything like a reasonable challenge to the idea of learning styles.

Will Thalheimer


Again, you miss the point. You argue that $1000 is not enough for someone to do a study that meets the requirements I outline. But why should people have to go out of their way to do a study of learning styles if they are already using them successfully. After 20 years of this foolish bandwagon, surely someone has already documented the success of their learning styles programs. All they have to do is let me know and the money is theirs.

Which of my criteria are unreasonable? Maybe I should allow the learning-styles condition to cost 3 times as much as the non-learning styles group instead of twice as much which the criteria allow. Maybe I should let an unrealistic four-minute e-learning program count as proof? Maybe the learning-styles improvement should be only 5% instead of the 10% I require.

My bias is that we in the industry prove our effectiveness instead of relying on flavor-of-the-decade, seems-good-to-me, hey-the-blogosphere-likes-it fads that delude us into thinking we're doing or jobs.

Benjamin Hamilton


Very interesting challenge, and, no doubt, it is one that is a very sensitive and hot topic.

At a training conference a few years ago, I also heard an individual claim that he doubted whether or not there were learning styles that impacted learning. I headed over to Wikipedia and typed in "Learning Styles" and interestingly, there were a few sections also claiming that the concept of learning styles was questionable.

Out of curiosity, are you indicating that the underlying issue is that you have not seen an empirical study on learning styles, or that the current studies have design flaws? Regardless, I look forward to reading the dialog, and will definitely post a reflection on my blog in the near future.

Will Thalheimer

Benjamin, thanks for your question. I have seen studies on learning styles. There's a least one refereed journal devoted to the topic. I'm not really commenting on the rigor of those studies. What I'm saying is that in real-world workplace-learning situations, using learning styles to separate learners into types and deliver specific learning to the different types is (1) unlikely to produce better results than not separating learners into styles, (2) a costly detour from more-important learning-design considerations, and (3) unlikely to actually be undertaken by real instructional developers. I do believe that there are circumstances where using learning styles would add value, but the effort to determine which learning-style diagnosis tool to use (there are hundreds of ways to separate learners into learning styles) would just be too onerous for most circumstances. In the rare case where significant learning improvements might be valuable (for example, warfare, spaceflight, medical decision-making) it might be worth it to make an investment in the long-term research effort that would be required to tease this out. For most of us, in most cases, learning styles is just a wasteful fad.

Eduardo Hernandez

4 years ago, my wife and me had a little problem because of our vacation's destination. She loves beaches, while I love cities. We had the idea to visit Mexico, but you can go to Cancun but you can also to Mexico City. If we had applied a "Tourism Style" survey, probably the final result could be something like "Wife goes to Cancun, while I go to Mexico City". However, I invited my wife to Mexico City, and she discovered how an urban city can be used as vacatation destination, so she now has different tourism styles; instead of keeping in her same style over and over again, she developed a new one.

I know a tour is very very different from course and your learning style; however a learning style does not show the definitive and only way an individual can learn, it only shows a preference, and individual feels comfortable.

If my learning style is A, it does not mean I can not learn if learning style B is applied. Probably if style is applied, I can develop (instead of cease) my preference for style B, which is great for me(learning syle A & B!)

Doc W

Maggie Martinez has done an incredible amount of work in this area and has shown clear empirical evidence of performance improvement.

Bernice McCarthy has also done some substantial research in this area.

I'm not sure that any ID would claim there is only one learning style through which a person learns, but motivation in learning accounts for a great deal of success and retention in educational programs. A large degree of motivation comes through a learner's connection to the content, which is measured to a degree by learning orientations. That's why target population analysis is an integral part of the design process. What is the purpose of a TPA? To find out the best ways our given population will learn (ie, learning orientation).

Will Thalheimer

Doc W, I never suggested there wasn't academic research to support some learning styles approaches. In fact, I believe I mentioned that there was at least one academic journal devoted to learning styles. What I said was that learning styles are unlikely to be cost-effective in a real workplace setting. In fact, I've seen NO evidence that anyone has actually used learning-styles to diagnose learners styles, then assigned learners to different learning methods based on their learning style, measured differences between the learning-style version of the program and the non-learying style version, and then shown significant differences between the groups. Until many demonstrations of this in the real workplace have been documented, I will remain skeptical that learning styles is something instructional developers should focus on.

There are two gigantic problems caused by fads in our industry. First, the fad is likely to be ineffective in general, or only effective in some circumstances. Second, the tremendous effort and share-of-mind we expend focusing on apply the fad makes it much less likely that we will focus on what's really important--things like meaningful repetition, retrieval practice, corrective feedback, etc.

G. Riley


Is this a fair question to ask without defining what you mean by “learning styles?” Far from a fad, people have been observing and analyzing the way we learn best for a very long time. Are you looking for research related to VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) model or were you thinking Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Model, DISC assessment, or perhaps Bernice McCarthy, four major learning styles, 4MAT systems?

It sounds like your position is that people should be able to learn and achieve the same results regardless of if the content is delivered via their preference—and I hope that while we might not all agree on learning styles we can agree people have preferences.

So let’s follow the logic. I tell you to read the instruction manual on how to install a carburetor. You say you’d prefer I just tell you how to do it. But I’m in a position to dictate how you’ll learn so you read the manual. Either way, could you successfully install the carburetor at the end? My guess is, if you’re a diligent person you’ll find a way to get it done regardless of your resources. So in that respect, you’ll always find someone who performs despite the tools they start with. But if you weren’t that determined I might have just created a bad learning experience in 1,000 which ways and that, while it might not measure on this test, is something to pay attention to.

The concept of learning styles is about understanding people and meeting their needs. Education isn’t about delivering facts it’s about opening senses and feeding curiosity. Learning is so institutionalized we’ve lost site of the big picture. The drive for life long learning is what compels growth and development in companies and society. By not acknowledging what makes learners thirsty to make sense of the world we as educators run the very real risk of alienating them, squelching curiousity and making learning a very unappealing chore.

I don’t know if the trip to Mexico is really applicable here. But let’s look at it like this. Your wife agreed to do what you wanted for vacation. Great, she knows how to compromise and make the best of a situation—that’s probably why you married her. But don’t think for a second she doesn’t have a preference and if she spent the rest of her life traveling into urban trenches she probably wouldn’t just feel gipped but might loose the desire to travel altogether.

Perhaps rather than challenging the theory of learning styles because it creates IT design and performance complications, the question you should be asking is how do we create effective learning-and-performance solutions that tap learners’ peak performance? I think you’ll find happy learners are productive performers.

Ned Parks

Your challenge makes the assumption that e-learning is an effective teaching tool. Do we even know the answer yet and if so in what area of learning?

I believe the jury is still out.

Ned Parks

Your challenge makes the assumption that e-learning is an effective teaching tool. Do we even know the answer yet and if so in what area of learning?

I believe the jury is still out.

Ned Parks

Your challenge makes the assumption that e-learning is an effective teaching tool. Do we even know the answer yet and if so in what area of learning?

I believe the jury is still out.

Gary C. Powell, Ed.D.

Talk about being late to the party!

Anyway...I think G. Riley made excellent points...I applaud you. The carburetor example is brilliant. As far as the $1000 challenge is concerned, I'd agree that for online learning w/ adults, creating a course using a variety of instructional stategies and techniques is the best route to take. I think that learning styles is more relevant with classroom-based instruction, and with school-aged children.


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