Learning Styles are a Myth—But It’s Important to Know Your Learner
“Let’s include a diagram for the visual learners.”
“The narration is great for auditory learners, and we’ve included a transcript for those who learn better by reading.”
“Some people learn by doing. Let’s include a practice scenario for those learners.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve worked in the learning design field—or been a learner yourself—you may have come across these sentiments. The notion that individuals have one of four “learning styles”—visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic (VARK)—has been popular in education for decades. The VARK learning styles theory argues that outcomes improve when learners receive instruction or apply study techniques that align with their particular learning style.
However, a comprehensive 2009 literature review found “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessment into general educational practice” (Pashler, McDaniel, and Bjork, 2009). People express preferences in how they prefer information to be presented to them, and people have varying aptitudes in different domains, but there is no evidence to suggest that instructional methods tailored to peoples’ self-described “learning styles” produce better outcomes (Pashler, McDaniel, and Bjork, 2009).
When considering the implications of the VARK learning styles theory in the real world, we can see its flaws. A person with strong language skills may consider themselves to have a “reading/writing learning style,” but they might still require a visual diagram to be able to successfully assemble a piece of furniture. An instruction manual containing only lengthy descriptions of pieces and the assembly process—without any drawings or symbols—could hinder even the fastest, most avid reader! A self-described “kinesthetic learner” who enjoys working with their hands can still learn something new from listening to a podcast. And how would a “visual learner,” enrolled in a training for new managers, master the difficult skill of giving an employee performance review without a hands-on role-play as an opportunity to practice?
The VARK model is now considered a myth—but despite its flaws, it persists in the education and learning space. Why? It may be because incorporating a variety of modalities in learning design can lead to better outcomes. Knowing your learners and knowing what you want them to accomplish can help you select the most effective modalities. According to educational psychologist Richard Mayer, “if you could know just one thing about a learner, you would want to know the learner’s prior knowledge in the domain” (Mayer, 2009, p. 193).
It may be useful to think of VARK as modalities you can incorporate strategically in your learning design. Visual, audio, reading, writing, and kinesthetic elements can elevate learning design. When selecting a modality, consider the learner’s prior knowledge and skills in the subject area and the desired learning outcome.
For example, multimedia instruction that incorporates visuals and audio is effective for novice learners; according to Mayer’s research, novices learn most effectively from spoken words and pictures (Mayer, 2009). For an introductory course, consider video or multimedia e-learning with useful graphics like diagrams, blueprints, maps, hierarchies, flowcharts, and animations.
However, if your learners have some degree of prior knowledge, are self-directed, and are expected to demonstrate higher-level thinking or skills, consider reading and writing activities. Reading activities are appropriate when the desired outcome for the learner is to understand, analyze, and evaluate. Writing activities are appropriate for outcomes that involve reflecting, applying, and creating. Consider case studies, reflections, online group discussions, or short essays.
The kinesthetic element of learning design often means opportunities for hands-on practice. Learning designer Julie Dirksen says, “you can’t expect learners to pick up new skills without practice. To teach skills, that practice must be part of the learning journey you design” (Dirksen, 2016, p.7). If your goal is to teach the learner a new skill—as opposed to fill a knowledge gap—you will need to build in opportunities for the learner to practice. Examples of practice in e-learning include simulations, scenarios, test environments, role playing, and low-stakes knowledge checks. Also consider the structure and placement of the practice activities. It’s best to space practice opportunities out over time and give the learner ample time to practice one skill before moving to a new one.
In conclusion, while research has shown the concept of learning styles to be a myth, it remains important for instructional designers to know your learner. Consider their prior knowledge and skills, as well as the desired learning outcomes, when selecting modalities. Strategically incorporating visual, audio, reading/writing, and kinesthetic elements elevates learning design.
- Cherry, K. (2023). Overview of VARK Learning Styles. VeryWell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/vark-learning-styles-2795156
- Dirksen, J. (2016). Design for how people learn. New Riders.
- Mayer, R. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.) Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. As cited in Davis, G. and Norman, M. (2016). Principles of Multimedia Learning. Wiley University Services. https://ctl.wiley.com/principles-of-multimedia-learning/
- Texas A&M Academic Success Center. (n.d.) Using Learning Modalities. https://asc.tamu.edu/study-learning-handouts/using-learning-modalities
- VARK Learn. (n.d.) Introduction to VARK – for better learning. https://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/
- Veritasium. (2021, July 9). The Biggest Myth In Education. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhgwIhB58PA