Make Learning Smarter: Research Shows that Common Assumptions About How People Learn Are Often Unproven

We’ve all heard the bromides about the best ways to teach and train: offer options for different learning styles, such as visual and auditory; concentrate on helping learners master one skill at a time; and don’t teach to the test. Modern cognitive research into how we learn, however, provides little to no evidence to support any of these beliefs.

Instead, recent studies demonstrate that for motivated learners, some very different techniques can work to boost results and recall. And there’s good news for online training providers — eLearning technologies and practices can correspond well to these techniques, helping learners master the material.

Do People Have Learning Styles?

During the 1970s, the concept that most people have an individualized learning style gained popularity. Since then, an enormous amount of work and research has gone into helping instructors assess learners’ styles and adapting presentations and teaching materials to match those styles.

… there is no evidence that identifying individuals’ style—and teaching to it—will lead to better learning outcomes.

Among the most popular of the learning style models, Neil Fleming’s VARK model posited that people learn best when the materials are presented in a manner that matches their preference for receiving information visually, aurally, through reading and writing, or kinesthetically. As a result, teachers and instructors have designed presentations and courses to impart important information in all of these ways, allowing learners a chance to gain and retain the content in the manner best matched with their style.

Recent studies, however, cast serious doubt on whether people learn better when taught in a way that matches their learning style. Although most people do express learning preferences, there is no evidence that identifying individuals’ style—and teaching to it—will lead to better learning outcomes.

Instead, instructors and learners can focus on strategies that are proven to work. These include regular testing and assessment, mixing content, and alternating study environments. And for each of these, eLearning provides opportunities to encourage these strategies.

Strategies that Work

In a series of studies conducted by psychologists Henry L. Roediger III and Jeffrey D. Karpicke, researchers found that students who are tested immediately after studying new material are far more likely to retain the information days later than are students who simply read with no immediate assessment. Testing helps learners firmly plant new information in their memories.

From an eLearning perspective, this means that courses and trainings should include assessments throughout, especially immediately after presenting key information. By immediately presenting learners with a test of what they’ve just learned, you’ll greatly increase their chances of remembering the information when they need it.

Mobile Study Habits

Another piece of conventional wisdom, that people should study in a specific, consistent place, has also been proven wrong. In fact, psychology experiments for the past 30 years have consistently shown that learners who study the same materials twice in different locations retain information far better than people who study for the same amount of time in the same room.

Although most eLearning might seem to discourage studying in different places—after all, people taking an online course have to be in front of a computer—including mobile elements in a course can encourage this kind of mixed-location studying. For example, by enriching an eLearning training with a smart phone or iPad application that reinforces the material, instructional designers can encourage learners to continue to study in a different place or environment.

Mixed-Up Content

Another example of how incorrect beliefs about how we learn may be hampering outcomes involves how content is presented. Many courses encourage learners to focus solely on a single thing at a time—for example, a particular type of statistics equation or a single grammatical rule in a foreign language—to encourage mastery of it before moving on to the next topic.

Research has shown, however, that when learning content is mixed—encouraging students to study several different approaches to solving a problem, for example—learners perform twice as well when tested on the materials. These experiments have shown that for long-term retention and positive learning outcomes, taking an approach that mixes together different types of information and problems about a topic can be best.

From an eLearning perspective, this means that course designers should avoid forcing learners to intensively immerse themselves in a single area. Instead, instructors can leverage the technology to mix together different relevant content. For example, problem set or test question banks that randomly present questions of different types to learners who have just studied several different techniques for handling a situation may be far more effective than presenting and testing on a single method at a time.

Misinformation and theories not backed by experimental evidence have led to a lot of confusion about how best to encourage learning during the past few decades. The good news, however, is that there are proven ways to help many learners achieve better results—and eLearning technologies and best practices can provide a good way to encourage these strategies.

If you would like more information about how Monarch Media can help you create better eLearning outcomes, please make an inquiry.