Forget Learning Styles. Your Organizational Learning Strategy Should Be Based on Science.

By Julia Huprich, PhD
April 06, 2021

Back in the 1990’s, researchers Fleming & Mills thought they were onto something big: they recommended that we customize instruction based on individual learning styles. Their theory was that people could be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners and that instructors needed to provide a variety of content types to accommodate these different styles. This approach caught on quickly, and in a 2020 study, it was reported that 80-95% of people still believe in the power of learning styles to enhance instruction.

Here’s the problem: there’s a complete lack of evidence to support the use of learning styles, and many studies have actually shown that this approach doesn’t work at all, whether we’re talking about learning in the classroom or learning in the corporate environment – also known as “organizational education,” which will be the focus of this article.

Learning Styles Were Theorized. But Little-to-No Evidence Supports Their Existence.

Organizational education can span internal employees learning within their organization’s corporate environment to a customer learning how to better leverage enterprise services. Either way, the same learning style misconceptions and myths hold true. Pigeonholing learners into categories based on unproven “research” leads to ineffective instructional practices and could negate the many benefits of organizational education, including happier, more productive employees and more loyal customers.

What’s more, designing organizational learning based on this flawed theory is a proven waste of time and money, but that hasn’t stopped vendors, authors, and “experts” from recommending it as a technique (see here, here, and here for examples).

So, how can we enhance customer education and workplace learning in meaningful ways? As a learning scientist, I recommend using evidence-informed approaches that have been empirically tested. By relying on science, we can avoid trendy-but-ineffective strategies (like using learning styles) to craft organizational learning experiences that are truly impactful.

This Learning Science Has Been Vetted and Is Actionable

Here are three recommendations from learning science, a field that uses evidence, not theory, to improve the way we learn.

Provide dual-coded learning content. The concept of dual coding involves adding meaningful visuals to written content to help improve learning and engagement. This isn’t about learning styles or preferences; rather, it’s based on evidence from cognitive psychology about the way our brains process information. Graphics can be a powerful facilitator of memory and cognition, and learners can grasp abstract ideas and processes more easily if content is accompanied by a well-designed image. Note the emphasis on the importance of adding meaningful visuals to learning experiences; there is evidence that decorative graphics can actually stress the limits of working memory and decrease learning.

Space out learning experiences. We’re all familiar with the one-and-done training that’s so prevalent in organizational learning. People take a class one day and then that’s it – they’re experts, right? The truth is, by the next day, they’ve likely forgotten most of what was taught. Researchers suggest instead that we enhance learning and retention with something called the spacing effect. By giving people opportunities to learn small bits of information at regular intervals (and by revisiting the same information over time), they’re more likely to successfully encode that information in their long-term memory. People also need time and repetition to develop schemas (or schemata, if you’re a stickler for proper Greek). Schemas are mental representations of knowledge, and learning involves assimilating new information into existing schemas. By spacing out instructional opportunities, we can ensure that our learners are given the support that they need to truly consolidate what they’ve learned into memory.

Provide opportunities for retrieval practice. When learners are asked to recall what they know about a specific topic, the simple act of bringing this information to mind – called retrieval practice – actually improves meaningful learning. Implementing this isn’t a complicated process; frequent, low-stakes quizzes, for example, are just one way to encourage retrieval practice and have been shown to improve retention and skill acquisition. Learners can also engage in something called “free recall” – the practice of writing down everything they know about a specific topic.

Basing instructional practices on myths (like learning styles) is one way to craft an organizational learning strategy, but this wastes both time and money. The alternative approach – using empirical evidence and learning science – ensures that customer education and workplace learning efforts have a lasting impact. And from a customer education perspective, lasting impacts can include increased customer retention and sales. In fact, according to this Forrester report commissioned by Intellum, 90% of companies have seen a positive return on customer education investments.

The three techniques described above represent just a few effective ways to optimize learning with an evidence-based approach.

Dr. Julia Huprich is the Vice President of Learning Science at Intellum, where she leads the initiative to establish evidence-based practices in organizational education that drive real-world results.

Featured Image: Stem List, Unsplash.