June 11, 2018By Dr. Kim Baily

Are Learning Styles Debunked? What We Need to Know for Healthcare Simulation

Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology in Society, University of Bristol writes that there is no evidence to back the claim that matching educational methods to learning styles improves learning outcomes. According to a recent studies there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles. Individuals are categorized into one of three preferred styles of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners based on self-reports. There are many different models of learning styles. One study found that there were more than 70 different models of learning styles including among others, “left v right brain,” “holistic v serialists,” “verbalisers v visualisers” and so on.

Learning style theories have been in existence for over 30 years and are still imeshed in current educational practice. Recent studies of the effectiveness of learning styles have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. In addition, when learners are categorized into a particular learning style they may lose their ability to adapt.

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A recent letter submitted by 30 eminent professors to the Guardian Newspaper Education Section notes that not only are these neuromyths ineffectual, but they are not low cost and resources could be better used in other ways.  The letter’s author’s wished to encourage neuroscientists and educationalists to use critical thinking when evaluating research claims and not accept theories that lacked intellectual integrity.

An article posted by the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, noted that “the overwhelming consensus among scholars is that no scientific evidence backs this “matching” hypothesis of learning styles” (Kirschner 2017, Pashler 2008, Simmonds 2014). The article continues that although learners may have preferences in the way they study, current theory refutes that students learn better through a self-reported learning style. Instead, scholars increasingly call for educators to replace ‘neuromyths’ with resources and strategies rooted in evidence from cognitive and adult learning theory.  The above findings should have a significant impact on medical and nursing education.  Learners should be able to select from a variety of learning modalities and find the methods that work best for them.

Adult Learning Theory (Knowles)

  • Adults desire explanations of why specific concepts are being taught in the first place;
  • They typically respond best to learning that is centered around performing common tasks;
  • Adult learning materials should take into account different levels of prior experience;
  • Adult students prefer a self-directed approach that allows for discovery on their own.

The above findings also has significant impact on the use of simulation as a learning methodology. Some learners may learn best in a multi-model environment or one that includes experiential learning such as simulation.

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Interestingly, relatively few studies have looked at the impact of learning style on outcomes from simulation experiences. Shinnick and Woo (2015) found that all students, regardless of learning style, had significant gains in knowledge following simulation. Tutticci, Coyer, Lewis, and Ryan (2016) found that students valued simulation experiences regardless of their learning styles. These studies indicate that simulation is beneficial but learning styles does not appear to impact learning during simulation.


Shinnick, M. A., & Woo, M. A. (2015). Learning style impact on knowledge gains in human patient simulation. Nursing Education Today, 35(1), 63-67.

Tutticci, N., Coyer, F., Lewis, P. A., & Ryan, M. (2016). High-fidelity simulation: Descriptive analysis of student learning styles. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 12, 511-521.

Today’s article was guest authored by Kim Baily PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, Simulation Coordinator for Los Angeles Harbor College. Over the past 15 years Kim has developed and implemented several college simulation programs and currently chairs the Southern California Simulation Collaborative.

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