Learning Styles: What every presenter ought to know

Before Copernicus we believed that the the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth. That’s what it looked like and it made sense. But science showed us that it’s not the case.

Today, many people believe in learning styles theory. At face value it makes sense and it’s easy to make your own experiences fit with the theory. But science does not back-up learning styles theory.

What is learning styles theory

Learning styles theory says that there are different learning modalities and that individuals have a preferred modality. The most common modalities mentioned are visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (this is known as the VAK model – however, there are many other models).

So far, so good. It’s probably true that individuals differ in which modality they prefer– just as we differ in many other aspects of our abilities.

However, learning styles theory takes this a step further and suggests that teaching should take place in the learner’s preferred modality. This is sometimes called the “meshing hypothesis”.

How could learning styles apply to presenting

Presentation advisors have used learning styles theory to encourage presenters to do more than just speak. Listening to a purely-spoken presentation is an auditory activity. So presentation advisers suggest that presenters use visuals (to help the visual learners in your audience), and get audience members to do things (to help the kinaesthetic learners).

Learning styles don’t make sense

At face value this makes sense. But not when you dig deeper. Learning styles theory says that an auditory learner will learn things better when they are presented aurally. But there are many types of knowledge which are hard to grasp aurally – for example the shape of a country or how to ride a bike. Just about everyone will learn the shape of a country by seeing that shape, that is visually. Just about everyone learns how to ride a bike by doing it, that is kinaesthetically. It is the type of information that drives how we should present it – not the learning style of the learner.

Here’s a video from cognitive psychologist Dr Daniel Willingham explaining this in more detail:

Research on learning styles

Here are references to three reports that reviewed the evidence:

  • A 1987 meta-analysis of 39 classroom learning style studies found no evidence that teaching to a child’s best modality had an impact on learning.
  • In 2004, the UK Learning and Skills Development Agency commissioned an evaluation of learning styles models and their effectiveness in post-16 learning.
  • “[S]ome of the best known and widely used instruments have such serious weaknesses (eg low reliability, poor validity and negligible impact on pedagogy) that we recommend that their use in research and in practice should be discontinued.”

  • In 2008, the Association for Psychological Science commissioned a panel of psychologists and cognitive scientists to review the evidence for learning styles. Their review found that:
  • “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.”

And here’s another reference that makes a mockery of those self-assessment quizzes:

“Furthermore, in a laboratory study of memory performance, participants’ own self-assessment of their learning style (as is commonly used) was shown to be out of line with more objective measures, and memory scores in different modalities appeared unrelated to any measure of dominant learning style (Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006).”

What does this mean for presenters

That suggests that rather than concern ourselves with the preferred learning style of an audience member we should think about the modality that best suits the content. For instance most people are likely to prefer to see an organizational chart, rather than have it described to them. Some types of content are likely to be better transferred to audience members by being presented in multiple modalities.

So for your next presentation, examine each piece of content and decide which is the best modality in which to present each piece. All your audience members will benefit.

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