Written by: Sierra Morris
In my experience, many trainers and general educators still buy in to the popular myth that people have one (or two) of three possible learning styles: visual, audible, or kinesthetic. Anyone who’s ever taught or developed course material probably used visual aids with written explanations, perhaps subconsciously attempting to appeal to both “visual and auditory learners.” But how effective is this approach? How true is it that people either learn better through visual representations, audible elements, or kinesthetic exercises? The truth is: it isn’t effective, the “learning styles” myth lacks evidence, and a more effective “INSTRUCTING style” approach exists.
Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic Learners- Does it Matter?
In 2006, researchers asked a group of students to classify themselves as either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. This group of students was then asked to take a learning style test to classify their learning style based on their responses. Each student was then subjected to evaluations of their visual memory, auditory memory, and kinesthetic memory. When students’ perceived learning style, tested learning style, and memory results were all compared, there were no relationships found.
These findings mean that a student who perhaps identified (by their own opinion or through the preliminary test) as a visual learner did NOT perform any better on the visual memory test than the other memory tests. Individuals who self-identified as visual learners came out of the preliminary classification test looking like auditory learners, but performed best on the kinesthetic memory test. The basic conclusion? Anyone can effectively comprehend and retain information using any of those different styles. The belief that people can better learn with one style over another is largely unsubstantiated.
Percentages of participants scoring highest in each preferred modality using self-report, the Barsch Learning Style Inventory, and standardized memory tests.
So, if it’s all no true and it’s not effective, why has the myth been propagated throughout the years? Learning styles caught on and have stayed put thanks to the predictable human desire to classify one another into neat little predictable groups or “types.” This also panders to the other human desire to feel special and unique; we like to perpetuate the idea we all have extremely varied brains which must be individually catered to.
This is neither 100% true nor is it practical. If we want to believe that individual learning styles exist, we must then take measures to cater to them, otherwise our training (by our own measure) would be inadequate and ineffective. This could mean testing and classifying individuals into learning groups (i.e. holding at least three separate seminars per safety course), then finding a way to appeal to every group’s needs with every presented concept. Some individual learning style advocates have actually identified seven different learning styles. Imagine the challenge providing for seven different learning styles presents to the average company. This is impractical, especially in safety training.
Pick an Instructing Style that Fits the Course Material, Not the Individual Learner
What is far more practical, and in fact far more effective, is not teaching in a way that caters to an “individual learning style,” but rather teaching to appeal to the INSTRUCTING style of the subject matter. Meaning, instead of attempting to incorporate audible elements, visual elements, and kinesthetic elements to appeal to a wide range of personalities in your audience (because now we know, thanks to research, that everyone in the classroom can benefit from just one), you are better off choosing one that befits the material you are attempting to convey.
“There are some ways to teach some subjects that are just better than others, despite the ‘learning styles’ of others … If you’re thinking about teaching sculpture, I’m not sure that long tracts of verbal descriptions of statues or of sculptures would be a particularly effective way for individuals to learn about works of art. Naturally, these are physical objects and you need to take a look at them, you might even need to handle them.” – William Cerbin
“An obvious point is that the optimal instructional method is likely to vary across disciplines. For instance, the optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual–spatial materials.” – Pashler et al.
Applying this Information to Safety Training
To reference safety training, imagine a class which intends to show how to use personal fall arrest equipment. Some instructors might automatically turn to YouTube and try to find a video to insert into a PowerPoint (trying to subconsciously appeal to audible and visual learners – the most typical approach.) But instead, let’s consider … Instructing someone on how to inspect and safely don and doff equipment might be done best with a kinesthetic approach. This way the learner can touch, feel, inspect, and personally put on and take off the equipment with their own two hands – which would help facilitate muscle memory associated with the inspection and use of the equipment.
Alternatively, a class which focuses on the chemical hazards present on site may benefit more from visual representations of labels, maps showing the locations of chemical hazards on the worksite, etc. So instead of trying to appeal to the invariable and imaginary ‘learning styles’ of the audience, we can choose to appeal to the instructing style of the subject matter; WHAT and HOW you’re teaching matters just as much as WHO you are teaching.
This isn’t at all intended to perpetuate the idea that one teaching method will fit all – there’s nothing farther from the truth. After all, instructors still have language barriers and varying educational backgrounds to contend with. But as far as using visual, audible, or kinesthetic instructing styles, it’s safe to assert that tailoring your instruction to the subject matter is more beneficial than attempting to appeal to all ‘learning styles’ you’ve heard about and suspect your audience possesses.
Cerbin, William. (2011). Understanding learning styles: A conversation with Dr. Bill Cerbin. Interview with Nancy Chick. UW Colleges Virtual Teaching and Learning Center
Clark, R.C. (2010). Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.
Kratzig, Gregory P., and Katherine D. Arbuthnott. (2006). Perceptual Learning Style and Learning Proficiency: A Test of the Hypothesis. American Psychological Association.
Pashler, Harold, McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 9.3 103-119.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.
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