Listen on the Almanac or Anchor, and find us and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.
Kenny Cox, CHCP, FACEhp (KC): Welcome to the Alliance Podcast. I'm Kenny Cox. And today we're diving deep into a topic that has sparked countless debates in the area of education and personal development, learning styles. For years, we've heard about visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, and the list goes on and on. But how much of this is rooted in fact, and how much is just educational folklore? Today, we're separating myth from reality and exploring the intricate world of how we truly learn with Dr. Brian McGowan, chief learning officer and co-founder of ArcheMedX. So whether you believe in learning styles, or you're simply curious about the science behind learning, buckle up, and let's dive in with Brian, as he shares his thoughts on this important topic.
Good morning, Brian. How are you today?
Brian S. McGowan, Ph.D., FACEhp (BM): I am well, Kenny, how are you?
KC: I'm doing well. And it's great having you on the podcast. Let me get started by asking you a quick question. Have you been in medical education for many decades, you had a variety of roles. Would you give a quick rundown of how you ended up at ArcheMedX, where you currently hold the chief learning officer and co-founder position, a little bit of history of what you had before that just give us a little bit of background?
BM: Sure. Thanks for having me on. So this is my proximately 21st or 22nd year in continuing medical education, Ph.D. trained scientist, which is kind of a theme. I think that'll come back a lot during this conversation, because basically, my entire training was how to be curious, critical thinking, evidence-based thinking. And it's a unique perspective from which to address things like myths in education that we're going to work through today. So 2003, I finished my last fellowship and was recruited by a bunch of cardiologists from our from around the U.S. to come and help support some education that they were working on. At that point, I'd already been teaching, I was teaching physiology at the medical schools in Temple and Jefferson, couple others in the area. And at some point, in between 2003 and 2004, my research interests changed from heart failure, cardiomyopathy and heart transplant science to how people learn and how their behaviors change. And basically, for 20-plus years now, I've been focused on that, that got me to lead all of medical education at Wyeth to work through the merger of Wyeth and Pfizer, and oversee all of oncology education at Pfizer. And eventually, it like the high point of social media and healthcare informatics, I got a book deal. I wrote a book about how information flows in the healthcare system. And one of the people I ended up interviewing with eventually became my co-founder at ArcheMedX. And we've now been applying my research in learning and predictive analytics for just about 11 years in medical education, and more recently in clinical trials.
KC: That is a long history and a history like you said, that will lead right into what we're going to discuss today, we're going to talk about learning styles today and get your get your thoughts around what appears to be a key thing that so many people talk about in education. In fact, there was even a USA Today article on learning styles just recently, where they discussed the issue of whether learning styles are actually real. But let's first start with a little background, would you explain the concept of learning styles and how they have been traditionally understood?
BM: So we have approximately 80 years’ worth of emerging pop science around learning styles. So we're going back to the 1940s, where there was a bunch of preference research moved through the 50s. And the 60s were their personality types like Myers Briggs and others, this idea of personalizing everything that we're doing, whether it's in organizational psychology, or it's an education, move forward another decade, we've got computer assisted technology for training and the move towards personalization and customization just kept growing. And so this concept of personal styles of how people learn, just fit what was going on and in the general culture of human resource development and training. It got conflated pretty early, this idea that what's usually stated as a preference I prefer to learn this way. So it got conflated pretty early this this idea of a preference got conflated as an innate skill that people can own We weren't learn one way or another way. So all of this is happening. And then for-profit companies started to come in and sell their own learning styles inventories. And so instead of having the educational research scientists of the day truly studied this stuff, it was being overwhelmed by marketing for these for-profit organizations. Basically, you get the tsunami of fast thinking across education. It just feels natural to say I have a learning style. And if you understand that to be a preference, you treat it very differently than if you believe it's an innate skill. And so I think what we'll talk about over the next 15 or 20 minutes is some of the downsides of all of this.
Alliance Ad Break: Being an Alliance member has its perks, from discounts to industry leading events like the Alliance Annual Conference, to members-only access to the Alliance communities, the Alliance is where healthcare CPD professionals come to learn. Visit acehp.org to join today.
KC: Let's kind of break out that a little bit more. Tell us about what educational settings we now find learning styles in let's talk about that for a second. How popular are they? Has that capitalism driven their use across various venues? What are you seeing in regards to the impact?
BM: I don't think it's understated to say that learning styles, the myth, we'll come back to that repeatedly, the myth of learning styles is perhaps the most ubiquitous urban legend and all of education, there is no corner of the world that you can go to, or you will not have somebody discussing learning styles, heads of universities discuss it. I think one of the most recent statistics is there's 29 states in which the boards of higher education have content or questions about learning styles on their licensure exams. Just some of the some of the facts right, like not that the numbers are the important thing here. The big takeaway is that learning styles are, in fact, a myth. But the ubiquity of that myth can be overwhelming, right? So 76% of educators in a 2017 study believe that children have learning styles that dominated their approaches to learning, so it almost becomes part of their self-belief. Ninety-three percent of Americans believe in learning styles; 86% of college students believe in learning styles. And I think, pretty recently, there was in a meta review of literature in health professions education, that suggested that 91% of those publications, presented learning styles as a useful approach to education. There's not a corner of the world that you can go to, that has not fallen in the trap of learning styles.
KC: So it's impacted everything from kindergarten all the way through medical school and into CPD for healthcare professionals. There seems to be a tremendous amount of literature around learning styles to but there really doesn't seem to be a meta-analysis or any type of study that has been robust enough to really validate their use in education to validate that there actually are learning styles that impact learning. Can you break that down a little bit more in talking about the data that has been you know, that has been published around learning styles? And do they actually support the concept?
BM: No, they don't. So here's the challenge, right? If you devise a study of learning styles, and it's not well designed, then what you end up with this is this kind of like confounding signal that if someone says they're an auditory learner, and you give them an exercise in which you read to them a set of words and ask them to remember those words five minutes later, and they remember five or seven of them, and the study stops right there. So you don't really have a control group. You have one learning preference stated and one learning preference in the design of the study. Then it's a really poorly designed study, but you publish it and you say, you know, people feel more comfortable Learning this way, which in essence is actually just self-validating. So I point everybody, whenever this comes up, there's really two publications that you should start your background research with. It should be in every instructional designer, certainly every CPD professional’s library. And the first one is the 2009 patch layer study, where this is the landmark study that basically said after 65 years of the myth, growing and growing and growing for five of the top educational scientists in the world got together. And they did that first major meta-analysis, demonstrating that there's not much evidence for this in rigorous studies. But what's most important about that landmark publication is they actually said, here's the proof we need. We're not saying that learning styles couldn't possibly be a valuable design approach. But there's no evidence to state that it is. Before we can say it's a valuable educational design approach, a study needs to follow the basic four rules of study design. So the first thing you would need to classify learners. So mind you, there are lots of different learning style inventories. We'll touch on that in a split second. But basically, they said pick a learning style inventory. And let's say you've got three different sub types of learning styles. Then you would organize those three into three cohorts. Each cohort would be subdivided, broken in half. So you take for example, if you're using var or VARK, or some of these most popular inventories, you take the people that state that there are visual learners, and you'd give them coursework that is visually designed. And maybe the other half of the other segment of that subtype would get coursework that is designed kinesthetically. And then you take your kinesthetic learners, and you'd subdivide those and half of them would get coursework that's designed kinesthetically. And the other half would get coursework that's designed visually. Right. So you basically have your segments, and you are, your intervention is either education aligned with their style, or education that's misaligned with their style. And then all of those learners sit down for the same post test. And what you need to see is that your visual learners learn better with the visual coursework versus the kinesthetic coursework, and that your kinesthetic learners learn better with the kinesthetic coursework versus the visual coursework, if that study was done, and you would find significant improvement, aligning content and design to the learning style, then that's the empirical validated evidence that you would need, that has never been done. And it's kind of cheeky. But last I looked, there is a $5,000 reward that will be paid to the first research team that ever does that very basic design. So all the other literature that's out there is either just looking at one style, and only giving them the content that that aligns with it and then asking if they, the learners felt it was effective, right, we have preferences on top of preferences with no intervention, or no control group, or, and this is much more often the case is that the learning style literature, quote, unquote, literature is actually just editorial and opinion. There's not any evidence behind it. And it would go back to my training or training as a scientist in general, like anytime you hear someone talk about learning styles, the first thing that I would hope everybody does after listening to this podcast is just reflect, you may not be as comfortable as I am to stand up in a room and say you're wrong. Maybe you don't do that. But at least pause and reflect and listen to the next paragraph that that person says. Because if they immediately go into a series of other adages are anecdotes about learning styles, and they don't point to new evidence, then they're probably caught up in that same tsunami, that 91% of publications are in 86% of, or 93% of U.K. and American residents are like they're just caught up in that groundswell.
KC: Let's go back a second and talk about the various learning styles. So you mentioned a couple of them is we're talking about the data talking about the literature and studies. Can you give me some examples of multiple learning styles, you know, different things that people have utilized over the years as they apply this in their education?
BM: Right, so this is that second landmark publication. I want everybody to have in their library And this is Coffield et al in 2004, where they aggregated and did a comparison across at that point 71 separate learning style inventories 71. Right. What do you do with 71? inventories? Do you pick your favorite do you go in alphabetical order, but basically what they did through the analysis, they tried to place the 71 inventories on a continuum, like almost see if they could segment them. So maybe these 12 all seem to be getting this construct and these 15 got it this construct. As you're listening to it, I want you to think about this continuum on one side of it. We can pick whatever side you want, but we'll say on the right side of the continuum, our learning style inventories that are anchored to the fact that a learning style is perhaps even genetically anchored. Some people it's just literally in their DNA, that they can learn this way versus that way. So that's one type. And I hope that that kind of sits uncomfortably with people when they're listening to it. Right, there's this genetic bias towards being this type of learner or that type of learner, we move a little bit away. And then we have a set of learning style inventories that are anatomically anchored. people's brain physiology, makes them more likely to be this type of learner versus this type of learner versus this type of learner. That sits almost as uncomfortably with me as the idea that learning styles are somehow genetically anchored. Let's move a little bit further down, we ended up with, I think, four or five of these fence posts on the road on the continuum of the roadmap. So we have genetically anchored learning styles, we have anatomically anchored learning styles, we have cognitively anchored learning styles that just based on the way people think they're going to be able to consume information and process it better one way or the other way. That when doesn't sit that uncomfortably with me. There's probably a thread of truth in that. We actually have some really interesting research that I'm certainly not fully mastering yet around learning disabilities. And so with dyslexia, visually consuming information can be almost impossible. And things like that are often used as like, a Ha, gotcha when it comes to learning styles, but it's very different to be on the edge of the learning ability learning disability scale, and say that that somehow is representative of all learners. My wife is severely dyslexic and almost finds it impossible to read something and consume it and learn. Like if she hears something, she has to restate it a couple times, but we're talking someone who in third and fourth grade hated school so much because everything was challenging to them, right, the one edge of the spectrum. So we have in coalfields inventories, we have genetically anchored anatomically anchored cognitively anchored, and then we start to get to a little bit of the softer stuff like the Myers Briggs Personality, emotionally anchored fluid, environmentally anchored learning styles. I think most people are familiar with VARK, visual auditory or kinesthetic or VARK. visual auditory, read, write or kinesthetic. Want to take a guess why I'm most people are most familiar with those two. And you can just follow the money. Like of all the inventories that are out there, the ones that had the most pop-up consultancies built around them to sell VARK inventories to school districts and design curriculum to school districts was around var and VARK. And so those are the most popular. But again, if there's 71 of these, what can you as an educator do, to try to represent a given learner, and then to augment the way you teach to customize the way you teach. When the literature base is basically saying that person fits someplace on 71 different learning style scales so possible.
Alliance Ad Break: Like what you hear on the Alliance Podcast? Visit almanac.acehp.org to read the latest continuing professional development news and insights. Visit today to get informed and inspired.
KC: So we've talked about the plethora of learning styles 71 different learning styles in the publication and research by Coffield, what should educators do? When where they really want to talk about the concept of differences in learning those individual differences and how it can impact their overall structure and design of education?
BM: It's a great question. A myth isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless there's some negative consequence of the myth. And I think this gets lost a lot in the learning styles conversation. The reason why the learning styles myth is so damaging is that there are far more effective interventions, far more effective use of planning and design time that an educator should be focused on, then an unproven unvalidated idea like learning styles. And so and if we don't have this conversation about generational differences, too, which is also a pretty widely held myth, we can but like the what we know in instructional design is basic tenants of what works universally, we know that dual coding of educational content is critical. And that has to do with what we do know about cognitive processing. In the fattest part of the curve. For the vast majority of learners that aren't on the extremes have some type of learning disability, the vast majority of learners have a dual processing sensory input that feeds their working memory. And that is auditory, and that's visual. And so in almost any situation, the best way to deal with the vast majority of all learners is to dual code the content that you present. So if there's an image that needs to be represented, and so it's types of content that have to be represented visually, then represented visually, but support it with either written word or spoken word, I find it pretty illogical that you can teach somebody how to do a surgery by telling them what they should do. Right? Even if you're standing over their shoulder, and saying, now, do this now do that. And you have that real time feedback of move the scalpel here and move the suture there, that that's only scalable one to one basis, right. So certain types of things that we need to learn are more effective through either the visual or through the auditory inputs. So dual coding is, should be used as a universally applied instructional design technique. And then you get the things like feedback and practice. Spaced Repetition, overcoming desirable difficulties, Kenny, like that is something that's like if I were to ever get a tattoo right across my shoulder blades, like it may just say desirable difficulties, right? Because all of this is all of the learning styles myth is predicated on what was originally preference data. learners prefer to learn this way. And I've yet to see any validated data sets that learner preferences by and large are accurate. Right, there's a great publication came out a few years ago. It's a Kirschner publication in 2013. And I'll read the title for you do learners really know best? Alright, starting in 2010. With my research, one of the first things I uncovered is learners actually don't know how to learn. And what Bjork and his team at UCLA identified is that with almost any form of studying or study skill, what learners think is the more effective strategy is actually the least effective strategy. So Bjork and Bjork refer to this as desirable difficulties. So preferences, what a learner thinks is working well for them. They're actually confusing effectiveness with familiarity. It feels like rereading a section in a book three times before you have to take a test. It feels like that provides mastery of the section of the of the text, but it doesn't. It's just more familiar with you. You read it again. You remember that sentence? It feels good. What desirable difficulties or do learners really know how to learn what that should teach us is that learning takes place most effectively in times of challenge in times of practice, and even in times of failure. And I think we can all agree that those are uncomfortable places for people to be right. So if we were to rely on learner preferences as the North Star for everything we do in instructional design, We would basically just give our learners crib notes and a highlighter and say, Go study for three hours before your maintenance of certification exam, because that's what they want to do. But that's not what's best for them.
KC: So Brian, you've given us tons of information, we've obviously got a little bit of research, we need to be doing a little reading on our own to learn about this myth of learning styles. But give me three things I can do tomorrow when I'm back at my desk.
BM: All right, I love this kind of reduction of all of this research. Here’s three things I think everyone should do. I think number one, you should bookmark this podcast, wherever you got it, find it on the Alliance website, bookmark this podcast and share it as widely as possible. Number two, I think this is OK to say, I want the term learning styles to be a trigger word. I want everybody in our community, when you hear learning styles, to be triggered. I don't want you to close down, I want you to immediately open up when someone says learning styles, I want you to immediately turn your critical thinking dial to 11. Question everything else that person says. Number three, then send them that bookmark link. Send that person that bookmark link to this podcast. Right, we need everybody from the most junior person in CPD to the most senior person in CPD to realize that the evidence base for learning styles does not exist. It doesn't mean it won't some day, but it hasn't for the last 80 years. So the more we start being critical about everything we hear about learning styles, the more quickly each of us can start focusing our energies, our resources and our efforts on the instructional design strategies that we know actually work.
KC: Brian, thanks so much. This has been fantastic. I learn something every time I talk to you, and today is absolutely no exception.
BM: Thank you for having me, Kenny. Appreciate it.
KC: If you'd like to dive a little bit deeper into the science behind learning, we put the references that Brian mentioned in the show notes, and you can also find Brian on X and LinkedIn as well as speaking at several sessions at the upcoming Alliance Annual Conference in New Orleans this February. Thanks for listening.