When I tell people I work in e-learning, the conversation often turns to teaching methods and ways to improve learning outcomes. And inevitably, someone will bring up learning styles. They’ll talk about how they’re a kinesthetic learner—who learns by doing—and say that’s why they always did poorly in school.

There’s just one problem: despite its popularity, the idea that our preferred way of learning has an impact on how well we learn has never been proven. In fact, many studies, including this one from 2018, have shown just the opposite.

In this article, we’ll look at what the research says about learning styles, why this widespread belief is so problematic, arguments that should help you convince any holdovers that it’s time to move on from this theory, and what to focus on instead.

What Is the Learning Styles Theory?

In reality, there isn’t just one theory about learning styles, there are TONS. Each model outlines a slightly different set of styles. But they all center around the same general idea: every individual has a preferred way to learn, and when learning is geared toward this preference, they learn better. 

What the Research Says

Even though this theory is super popular, it’s simply not supported by the evidence. Time and time again, studies have shown that while people may indeed prefer one way of learning over another, that preference doesn’t impact their learning.

Why Perpetuating This Myth Is Harmful

While it may seem innocuous to let people go on believing in learning styles, doing so can lead to some negative outcomes. 

First, creating multiple versions of the same course geared toward different learning styles is time-consuming. And with no proven return on investment, this is a considerable waste of effort and—ultimately—money that could be better spent creating other courses.

But believing in this theory can impact more than just your bottom line. According to this Psychology Today article, it can actually become a barrier to learning. For example, when faced with a course that’s primarily delivered orally, someone who believes they’re a visual learner might simply give up. If learners saw learning styles for what they are—preferences that don’t prevent people from learning in many different ways—it would encourage them to make an effort, no matter what the course format.

And even if learning styles were proven to make a huge difference in how easily we learn, I’m not sure it’d be a good idea to create multiple versions of each course. Think about it: if you’re constantly catering to the way each individual prefers to learn, won’t that keep them from developing their ability to learn in other ways? What happens when they’re faced with a course that isn’t offered in their preferred style? Or when they need to learn something outside of the classroom? 

What to Do Instead

Take it from neuroscientist Christian Jarrett and cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham: instead of worrying about learning preferences, try adapting the way you present course content based on the subject matter. When you do that, everyone learns more effectively, no matter what their preferred learning style. 

And when you think about it, that makes a lot of sense! After all, certain topics—like anatomy—lend themselves more easily to visuals, while others—like languages—might be easier to teach verbally. Your content should drive the choice of modality, not your beliefs about your learners’ preferred way of learning.

The Bottom Line

As an instructional designer, catering to various learning styles isn’t something that you should consider as you create e-learning courses. At best, the idea that learning styles impact outcomes is an interesting theory. At worst, it’s a harmful myth that can not only cost you time and money, but may also discourage learners from pushing themselves to succeed.

All learners benefit from learning in a variety of ways. Let the subject matter be your guide, not the supposed preferences of individual learners.

Looking for more instructional design tips supported by scientific research? Check out this article series: Evidence-Based Guidelines for E-Learning.

And be sure to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

12 Comments
Kelly Cooke
Christopher Gilland
Nicola Redfearn

I agree it's not productive to try to create things for specific learning styles especially as the theory is not proven. People learn when the content is relevant to them, when it builds upon their existing knowledge, and when they are challenged to apply what they have learned. It can be helpful in a long course to to mix things up so that different sections have a different "learning style" (i.e. just a variety of different types of activity) because doing sections in a different way makes the content more distinct to the learner and helps them remember and differentiate the sections more easily when they think about what they learned after the course. However, the way you present the content should always be driven by the content itself and what the learner needs to do with it after... Expand

Rick Wiedeman