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.