Learning Styles: What every presenter ought to know

by Olivia Mitchell

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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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

David Magliano August 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm

After Mehrabian and this too — thanks so much for showing that when it comes to these widely propagated communication theories, the king isn’t wearing any clothes. Good work.

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Jessica Pyne August 4, 2010 at 12:46 am

Great post, Olivia – interesting to see another ‘proven theory’ shot down. Why are there so many of these around?

But yes, it makes much more sense to present information in the way that’s most suited to the content. Aside from anything else, this variation is much easier to control!

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Olivia Mitchell August 4, 2010 at 9:49 am

Hi Jessica
I think these myths exist in many areas of endeavour – it’s part of the human condition.
Olivia

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Jeff Hurt August 4, 2010 at 3:55 am

Olivia:
Thanks for weighing in on the learning styles debate. I just finished reading Dr. Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School and he lays a great foundational framework for what we should do in presentations and education sessions. While it discusses the traditional school, it has great application for adult learning.

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Olivia Mitchell August 4, 2010 at 9:48 am

Hi Jeff
Yes, it’s a great book for adult learning too. I find anything he writes is worth reading.
Olivia

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Lisa Braithwaite August 4, 2010 at 4:28 am

Thanks for posting this, Olivia. I’ve been hearing the same thing recently, but hadn’t come across any research to back it up.

Besides presenting content for maximum understanding, using different modalities also keeps things interesting for the audience!

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Olivia Mitchell August 4, 2010 at 9:44 am

Hi Lisa
The interesting thing about the belief in learning styles is that although it’s wrong, it does cause presenters (and teachers etc) to present things in different ways. So they’re doing the right thing but for the wrong reason!

Olivia

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Chaunce Stanton August 4, 2010 at 4:40 am

Very interesting! I especially enjoyed the video embed as I am a visual learner (ha – just kidding!) thanks

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Olivia Mitchell August 4, 2010 at 9:47 am

Hi Chaunce
You bring up a beautiful example of why so many people believe in learning styles!
Olivia

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Simon Raybould August 4, 2010 at 9:20 am

Dammit! :)

There goes another of my blogs – beaten to it! Mind you, you’ve done a better job than I was going to so, so I’ll let you off! :)

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Olivia Mitchell August 4, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hey Simon,

Always interested in your 2 cents :-) .

Olivia

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Bruce Graham August 5, 2010 at 1:47 am

“…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….”

27 words that changed the World.
Just think of the effort, time and speed (and therefore financial…) implications of those words on Corporate learning departments across the World….No need to produce everything in every format to suit every person. So simple really – thanks for helping us understand the myth.
Bruce

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Olivia Mitchell August 5, 2010 at 9:43 am

Hi Bruce
Thank you for your appreciation. I should add that my post is in the context of delivering a presentation – and I’m not saying that people don’t have preferences – particularly when it comes to online content. So for instance, if I’m consuming content online I prefer to have it via audio or text, rather than video. I’m too impatient for most online video – but I recognize that not everyone is the same as me – lots of people appear to love online video! So if I was to produce an online course and I was wanting everyone to access it I would provide it in different media formats. But these preferences are not the same as learning styles (which implies that I will learn better that way) – they’re just preferences for how I like to consume information.
Olivia

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Ron Fitzgerald August 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

For years, my school and many others have demonstrated high learning improvement from proper use of learning style options. The research quoted here ignores much measured evidence on the demonstrated value of giving students learning style options. Some of that evidence is shown on the web site http://www.SuccessInTeaching.info .

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Olivia Mitchell August 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Hi Ron
I know that a lot of schools and other education institutions do use learning styles. And it can appear that teaching students with learning styles appropriate to their preference results in better grades. However, this may be as a result of teachers simply giving more thought to the way they teach material, and as a result having better materials.

The research that I’ve quoted (with the exception of the fourth reference) are “meta-reviews” or “meta-analyses”. This means that they review a large amount of other studies and analyse those. These reviews discard studies with flawed experimental design. It requires thoughtful experimental design to come up with a study which will study the impact of learning styles and nothing else. Here’s a quote from the Pashler paper (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf):
“We concluded that any credible validation
of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust
documentation of a very particular type of experimental
finding with several necessary criteria. First, students
must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning
styles, and then students from each group must be randomly
assigned to receive one of multiple instructional
methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is
the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate
that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction
tailored to their putative learning style, the
experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between
learning style and instructional method: Students
with one learning style achieve the best educational
outcome when given an instructional method that differs
from the instructional method producing the best outcome
for students with a different learning style. In
other words, the instructional method that proves most
effective for students with one learning style is not the most
effective method for students with a different learning
style.”
So there may be measured evidence – but if the evidence comes from a flawed experimental design, it is not evidence that teaching students in their preferred learning style improves results.
Olivia

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Stephen Hendren August 12, 2010 at 6:20 am

Interesting article Olivia although i’m not sure i entirely agree with the conclusion. I have long been an advocate of communicating with people in their preferred modality to put them at their ease. In a teaching situation i have found that students at ease learn best as opposed to those who feel nervous and uncomfortable. I think a lot of the criticism of the use of learning styles perhaps comes from an oversimplification of how they apply to students. In truth we all react to all three modalities so any tool used to activate and engage the modalities that makes a direct link with the key message can only help with the learning process. Admittedly i only have my own teaching experience to back this up but i often observe students responding to the parts of my teaching that suit their favoured modality, whether it is body language, interactive response or note taking.
Does any of this constitute empirical evidence that using learning preferences works? Well no, but empirical proof is not the be all and end all. Sometimes we have to believe what is in front of our eyes.

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Olivia Mitchell August 12, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hi Stephen

I agree with your statement:
“In truth we all react to all three modalities so any tool used to activate and engage the modalities that makes a direct link with the key message can only help with the learning process.”
Seeing, hearing and doing are ways that we all learn. So changing your teaching style to incorporate different modalities – which teachers do when they apply learning styles – is helpful to learning. It’s easy then to interpret this as evidence of learning styles. But it’s evidence that incorporating different modalities into your teaching is helpful. This is one of the problems with anecdotal evidence – there are a huge number of different variables which may affect the results.

The other issue is that our perceptions can be faulty. Here’s a classic paper on that http://www.scribd.com/doc/17095236/Selective-Perception-They-Saw-A-Game-A-Case-Study-by-Albert-Hastorf-Hadley-Cantril. To summarize it very simply, Princeton and Dartmouth students watched a football game Princeton v Dartmouth. It was a rough game and when the students were asked who started the rough play 86% of Princeton students said Dartmouth had, but only 36% of Dartmouth students blamed their own team. They then watched a film of the game and were asked to report on the number of infractions. Princeton students reported twice the number of infractions as Dartmouth students.

This shows that we tend to see and notice what we believe. The belief in learning styles is self-perpetuating because of this tendency. It’s easy to interpret a whole lot of things as evidence of learning styles – which have nothing to do with learning styles.

Olivia

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Philippa Leguen de Lacroix August 13, 2010 at 4:19 am

Another great post Olivia!

Very useful for when I explain our approach to presentations as I often deal with “learned” people who like to contradict me by quoting learning styles theory.

I can now respond that essentially content will dictate the best method rather than the learner. I usually quip that “vision trumps all other senses”, but now I have another string to my bow!

Thank you
Philippa

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Olivia Mitchell August 13, 2010 at 8:19 am

Thanks Phillipa. It’s very useful to have a response that is easy for people to grasp.
Olivia

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Bill Huddleston August 15, 2010 at 8:28 am

Olivia,
I think that in addition to the matching the content to the type of presentation, it’s also important to consider the learning environment, especially for aftermarket products by speakers and authors. For example, I prefer to read, but it’s really not a good idea while driving a car, so I always have a collection of audio CDs I can listen to and learn from if I’m alone while driving. (If I’m not alone, my kids age 10,11 & 17 will inevitably take control of the radio/CD player even if I tell them how great the author/speaker really is!)

P.S.
This is my first time to your site, I appreciate it’s content and clean design. I do non-profit fundraising consulting, primarily about the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) whiich is the world’s largest workplace giving program. The CFC raises about $250 million annually and the donors are the civilian and uniformed frederal employees of the United States government.

Regards,
Bill Huddleston
The CFC Coach

I do have an article about leadership development, including opportunities to make 100s of presentations. If any of your readers would like that article if they send an e-mail to BillHuddleston@verizon.net with “Leadership” in the subject line, I’ll be glad to send it to them.

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Olivia Mitchell August 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

Thanks for your comments, Bill, and welcome to my site.
And I totally agree with you about content being available in different formats to suit the environment in which it’s going to be “consumed”.
It seems that you haven’t discovered podcasts yet – that’s fantastic way of getting lots of interesting audio material.
All the best
Olivia

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Joanne Law January 5, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Great well researched post.

It’s a perfect example of how something that is true gets generalised to mean something else. – we access information about the world through our senses and that some people rely on one sense more than another.

Then the truth turns into a theory that distorts the realty so educators are trained to pretend that we don’t all use all of our senses all the time.

I think the best option it to cycle through VAK where possible. Visual information provides a lot more information but it’s often more open to interpretation than text or spoken information and skills develop happens through doing not just thinking about doing.

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Olivia Mitchell January 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Hi Joanne

Thanks for highlighting how common sense can turn into a myth.

In regards to cycling through VAK, I do agree with considering whether V, A or K is the best mode for presenting information. However, I don’t think that you have to present each piece of information in V, A and K. For most pieces of information, one of the three modes will be the obvious mode to present it in.

Olivia

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Connor Larsson March 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Hi Olivia

What learning styles do you recommend for first time users?

Connor

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Olivia Mitchell April 19, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Hi Connor
Sorry for my delay in replying – I’ve been traveling overseas.

My post argues that learning styles is not a useful concept, so given that I’m not sure what you’re asking me. If you can be more specific, I will have go at answering your question.

Olivia

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Marcey Walsh January 29, 2013 at 3:39 am

Yes, I have read the studies. After working with thousands of children, teens and adults I have found that, hands down (pun intended) presentations with a kinesthetic component reaches all learners of any style preference, They engage because see it, they hear the discussion and they get to touch it/do it. No one falls between the cracks and I only have to present the material once. The easiest way to describe this is with Learning Styles language, so that is what I use when training teachers.
As for ‘the content determines the presentation;, because I can find a way to make any concept kinesthetic, I find that this strategy works.

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Wheeldo January 2, 2014 at 8:15 am

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seo March 18, 2014 at 4:26 pm

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