Learning Theories Gone Wild: Urban Myths that Hurt Your Learning Designs

I had lunch with one of our team members last week, and she shared a story about her elementary-aged son that made me cringe. The teacher had students take a “learning styles” assessment to determine their learning styles and assigned homework based on the learning style. Yikes! I thought the myths around learning styles had been settled long ago. As I learned last week, there are numerous unproven learning theories still running amok among designers and educators.

Our industry is rife with things that become hot trends—and then fizzle out. It’s also rife with various theories that hang around (probably due to their inclusion in a best-selling book). These theories turn into urban legends that people view as facts. Then they make design decisions based on those “facts.” So let’s clear a few up:

Theory Gone Wild #1

“People have different learning styles. We need to design learning to address a variety of them.”

The truth:

What a person “needs” in terms of instructional design depends on many factors such as prior knowledge, readiness to learn, motivation, etc… but not on a preferred learning style. This blog post from Guy Wallace in eLearn Magazine does a terrific job of summarizing the issue and the research findings. He reaches out to heavy hitters such as Ruth Clark, Harold Stolovitch, and Will Thalheimer. These are folks who work hard to review the research and assess the validity of it.

How to move away from the myth:

Take time to understand the needs of your particular learner group. Learn about your particular audience and factor these things into your design:

  • The amount of prior knowledge the learner is bringing to the learning situation.
  • Their motivation to learn. Will they see the learning solution as a huge benefit or as a chore? Do they perceive they already have the skills? Do they see the learning as useful?
  • The complexity of the skill being taught. You need different strategies for a highly complex skill or subject matter area than you do for a simple one.
  • Appropriate contextual cues you can use to encourage transfer to the workplace. We do better when we can scaffold new content onto stuff we already know and know how to do.

Theory Gone Wild #2

“People only remember 10% of what they read; they will remember 90% of what they see, hear, and do.”

Older folks may recall seeing charts labeled “Cone of Learning” or “Cone of Experience” that were widely distributed in the 1990s. I don’t see the charts as much as I used to, but I still hear percentages quoted.

The truth:

Dr. Will Thalheimer tackles this one in great depth. The challenge, according to Thalheimer, is that the premise sounds logical, but the percentages provided aren’t rooted in any quantitative research. In fact, the sources cited aren’t even real. Essentially this stuff is made up. But since it sounds intuitively right, we accepted it without questioning how the percentages were ever derived.

How to move away from the myth:

Be very intentional in selecting strategies that are proven to help people remember. I love John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, for its summary of great “brain rules” that truly help people remember. These strategies all can enhance our ability to remember:

  • Space the learning out. Implement it in small chunks, not as one long session.
  • Provide a lot of repetition. If we want to remember, we have to repeat things over and over.  (Yes, those flashcards really worked in helping us learn things such as anatomy, multiplication, etc.)
  • Deliberately insert attention getters every 10 minutes or so. We get easily bored and we don’t pay attention to boring things. About every 10 minutes we need to re-engage that learner by introducing something that sparks emotion or interest.
  • Provide relevant feedback. Medina doesn’t talk about feedback in his brain rules, but Will Thalheimer does as does other research. (Ruth Clark and Richard Mayers’ book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction offers nice guidance.)
  • Remember that visuals typically trump text in our memory. We more easily recall a picture than verbiage. Clark and Mayer talk about visuals; Medina does as well. They all offer compelling info on how we tend to think in pictures, not words.

Theory Gone Wild #3:

We will forget 90% of what we learn within 3-6 days’ time without reinforcement.

The truth:

Forgetting does occur—the problem is the blanket statement about the percentage. Some people will indeed forget 90%; others may only forget 30%. Way back in 1895, Hermann Ebbinghaus theorized that children in classrooms will forget up to 90% of their classroom instruction within 3 to 6 days without reinforcement. His studies done in support of his theory focused on remembering nonsensical syllables rather than meaningful content. Thalheimer attacks the forgetting percentages voraciously. He identifies research that points to several variables that influence the amount of forgetting that happens (spoiler alert, prior knowledge is a big one), and he puts together a scatter plot of various study results to show how wide the percentages can be.

Thalheimer emphasizes that what matters most is recognizing the proven strategies that help people remember. Effective strategies include the use of spaced learning and retrieval practice, repetition, feedback, and novelty. These are a handful of the effective strategies that can enhance remembering. Clark and Mayer’s book identifies others. John Medina, in Brain Rules, also expounds on what helps people remember.

Moving away from the myth:

See the strategies under Theory Gone Wild #2.

Theory Gone Wild #4:

“Learners know best. For maximum engagement, let learners be self-directed. If we “force” learners down a linear path, we will de-motivate them.”

The truth:

Many learners do a very poor job of learning and try to skip through with minimal effort and attention. One of Thalheimer’s most recent blog posts does a terrific job of blowing through this myth. He goes through numerous research studies and concludes, “WE CANNOT ALWAYS TRUST THAT OUR LEARNERS WILL KNOW HOW TO LEARN.” (His all-caps emphasis, not mine).

If you want to pay $39, you can get a terrific report from Educational Psychologist on three urban myths that all link to this one. My favorite is the one related to digital natives – and how they will intuitively learn better in online formats than “non-digital natives.”

Moving away from the myth:

If the learning matters, then employ research-proven instructional design strategies and don’t assume people “will get what they need.” Also, don’t assume that anyone with some subject matter expertise can craft the learning experience. Most people do not plan their learning well and they are not intentional in their learning. The instructional design has to save them from themselves.

  • christytucker

    Great summary here. You briefly mentioned the “digital natives” idea here, and I think that’s another myth that we need to tackle. There are cultural and value differences between generations, and I appreciate how the digital native idea has pushed people to create more engaging courses rather than hours of passive lecture. I don’t buy the idea that Baby Boomers learn better with boring courses though.

    • Sharon Boller

      You will enjoy the research paper titled “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. The researchers totally blow apart the “digital native” theory. The citation you need to find this paper is: Paul A Kirshner & Jeroen J.G. van Merrieboer (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best: Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183

      • christytucker

        Thanks! That’s a great resource.

  • Andrea Moore

    this is one of the best summaries of the research going on in our field, that I’ve read in a long time. I’m getting ready to go to the ISPI conference and I’m hoping Will speaks to these myths.

    • Sharon Boller

      Thanks, Andrea. I am confident Will won’t disappoint you. I love his white papers and cite them frequently. He does his homework, and I count on him to keep me straight!

  • Steve Yacovelli, Ed.D.

    Great article, Sharon. And THANK YOU THANK YOU for mentioning Dr. Medina’s “Brain Rules” in regard to how people learn. I’ve been using that book and his findings since I accidently discovered it several years ago, and I’m surprised how few learning professionals are aware of this great (and fun to read) resource. I especially cite his Rule #4 regarding the myth of multitasking when talking with my clients here at SweetRush. When discussing online learning solutions, I often ask clients about their corporate culture when it comes to learning. I too often hear how it’s OK at our company for people to “multitask” when participating in online training (especially synchronous webinars). I then share Medina’s research and let them know that their learners aren’t getting the most out of their training dollars and that might be a cultural issue to address; and then we brainstorm ideas to address the situation.

    Overall thanks for debunking these all-too-prevalent myths! The academic in my thanks you a whole bunch!

  • JohnR

    Sharon, I found your post very helpful in making me think carefully about how much credence — read none — I put into self-professed claims from learners that “I just learn differently; this is what you need to do differently for me”. I can accept that.
    Where I suppose I have a question more than anything else, relates to semantics of what we might define as “learning styles”. Totally understand the thrust of the research, which, if I have a summarization correct, says that “people aren’t born with a bias toward learning more effectively via one approach than another”.
    How, what if I pick a different term, and just say “learning preference”. From a business perspective, learners in a corporate environment are often the customer (unless you can find a situation where management is so authoritarian and respected that they ‘order’ students down a certain route). In these circumstances, is it valid to offer different ‘routes’ through the material with no other basis for this than what the customer is asking for?
    I ask this because I have design choices regarding the set-up of e-learning, e.g. whether I require completion of one lesson to view the next, or whether I let folks hop around. In fact, I sort of half figured that different folks might prefer to “march”, “dive”, or “skim”. Is this thinking all bogus?
    In short, how do I distinguish between falling prey to the myth of learning styles and just trying to do my best to offer choices for paying customers? At least my intuition (and as you suggest, that’s all many of us work with), seems to suggest that learning objectives, motivation for being on site, time available, prior experience, etc. have a bearing on how each individual might wish to approach the content.
    Many thanks for any comments you have on these questions.

  • JamesJ

    Very interesting post, Sharon. Thanks for sharing this information. Just curious – any thoughts on the “70:20:10 rule” in this context?

  • Bruce Edelman

    Sharon, another great one! But it leaves me with a question: How did learning styles get so darn big in the first place? My 21 years as a high school teacher and college professor gave me tons of experiences that resonate very clearly with the learning styles discussions.

    Is this a case of progressively more accurate models? For example in BC times a geocentric model of the solar system was created. We then move to a helocentric model. But guess what? That geocentric model still predicts eclipses to within 60 seconds today. It won’t work very well if we are trying to put satellites in orbit or many of the other astrophysical tasks we attempt. But it does work well at what it did. If you use it as a model and not as a picture of “reality” it works. Is the learning style issue like that? Or has it all been shown to be nothing more than 🙂 old teachers seeing patterns where there aren’t any?

    Thanks again!
    Bruce Edelman

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  • Nadine Strick

    People do not always want to learn what they need to: no matter their learning style or needs, they might have psychological and social needs not being met in aspects of their lives that interfere with learning.