Assess Learning Needs, Not Learning Styles

Teaching is a difficult enterprise. This is especially true when learning happens in real life settings such as a hospital or clinic, where the hurry, beeping, interruptions, controlled chaos and emotional charge create adverse conditions for learning.

Communicators and educators look for tips and tricks to improve our success in passing on essential – often lifesaving – information and skills. Some have focused on making adjustments to a person’s learning style to improve learning transfer.

 The problem? A lot of effort for not much gain.

Learning styles have no evidence base.

Maybe you’ve heard that some of us are visual learners, some are auditory learners who learn by listening, and still others are kinesthetic learners who learn by moving and doing. Or you may have heard that some people are more detail-oriented, sequential learners while others prefer to get the big picture and fill in the details later.

It may be true that people enjoy using one sense over another, or are drawn to some aspects of learning more than others. But tailoring instruction to learning styles has no effect on whether and what a person actually learns.

What’s the harm of focusing on learning styles?

If we were to grade the use of learning styles in patient education, like the U.S. Preventive Task Force does for preventive services, we’d probably have to give it a “D”: there is moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit or that the harms outweigh the benefits.

 The harm in using learning styles in contextual learning, including patient education, is that it wastes your very limited and precious time on something that has little or no effect on the learning process. It replaces more beneficial strategies and, perhaps most unfortunately, it diminishes the patient’s confidence to learn using a range of strategies.

 Match the learning strategy to the task, not the learning style.

In truth, we all use a range of learning strategies depending on what we need to learn. It’s much easier to learn how to use an inhaler by watching someone do it and then trying it out with some coaching, than it is to learn from written instructions. It’s probably better to learn about the risks and benefits of a certain procedure by looking at pictograms that show risk [] than it is to learn by having abstract percentages lobbed at you verbally. A flyer or brochure probably won’t do the trick for teaching complex new behaviors like exercise and diet, which will require multiple strategies that address motivation and emotion in learning [].

Tailor learning to the person, but not to a set learning style.

We should still try to adapt learning to the needs of individuals, but our focus should be on the person’s context, experience and prior knowledge, rather than a cognitive learning style. What is the person up against at home? What are the barriers? What do they already know, and how can you build upon this experience and knowledge to help them integrate new information more quickly?

 For example, a person who doesn’t read well or has trouble with English won’t be able to use much written information without help. A patient’s regular daily routine should be part of any teaching about how and when to take medications. A person’s beliefs about their situation and which steps are most important to take must figure prominently in any teaching of adult learners. When a person encounters resource limitations (time, energy, money), these beliefs will guide the patient’s decisions about what to stop or continue.

 Our window of opportunity for adult learning is usually small – whether it’s in the adult education classroom, in a medical setting or at work – and the stakes are usually high. Use education practices supported by evidence or, at least sound theory. You don’t have time to waste on ineffective strategies like learning style assessment.

Life Admin: Another Reason for Continuous Adult Learning

Most of us spend less than a quarter of our lives in classrooms, but learning doesn’t stop when we finish school. We continue to learn new information and skills so we can tackle all aspects of adulting with as much success as possible.

It’s a fascinating time to be a cognitive scientist or learning professional. We live in a world of great complexity and we must learn and master new things all the time, usually without the help of formal education.

Life admin requires continuous learning for adults.

Our focus as training professionals has been to help people learn new skills and information to get jobs or to do their jobs more effectively. That’s still a challenge (along with its equally challenging cousin – ensuring the dissemination and adoption of research-informed practices in the workplace). But in addition to these workplace tasks, people must also learn skills to manage the growing list of “life admin” tasks that are required just to get life done.

Life admin includes a wide array of tasks. We must learn how to buy health insurance and ask the right questions about coverage and take the right course of action when our claims are denied. We must learn how to save for retirement, manage our money and establish credit. We must learn how to comparison shop and say the right magic words so we will not be overcharged for our Internet, cable or phone service. We must learn how to spot a scam, protect our identity, decide when it’s time to go to the doctor, fix our crashing devices ... it goes on.

The good news is we’re good at figuring out how to get things done.

We are strongest as learners when we have a practical reason to learn things. We are natural problem solvers and we will use all of the tools and information at our disposal to make something work for us.

The bad news is that we’re not as good at understanding complex problems with no intuitive causes and solutions.

Some of our life admin tasks are not so straightforward. This is increasingly true of our tasks as citizens: the problems we face are complex and the policy solutions involve an equally complex set of benefits and tradeoffs. We need to learn enough about policy and governing to vote wisely – not only for candidates but for the many state and local ballot initiatives presented directly to the voting public, a list that grows longer with every passing year of legislative gridlock. But often we don’t learn what we need to know to cast an informed vote: the cognitive load of this task, the time it takes and the lack of learning support pose real barriers.

When we become overwhelmed by this complexity, we turn to heuristics, thinking shortcuts that help us know what to do. One heuristic is political party affiliation. I wonder how much of our current political polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere is a response to overwhelming complexity and a lack of tools to navigate it.

With a world as complicated as ours, we need cognitive division of labor – meaning, we need to rely on experts who know more than we do about many things. To make the most of this setup, we need three key elements:

  • A population with good reasoning skills and the ability to seek and evaluate information

  • Experts with some facility in sharing knowledge with non-experts

  • A societal foundation of trust, so we can believe that experts are usually not lying to us and have our society’s best interests in mind.

This blog will explore all three in different ways and from different angles. Stick around and learn with us!