No matter what stage of your career you’re at, the ability to learn effectively is vital if you want to keep growing your skills and maintain your competitive edge. 

But how do you go about making sure you are learning as effectively as you can? 

At some point in your life, you’ve likely come across the idea of learning styles. This is the idea that each of us has a different learning style that determines how we can best assimilate new information.? 

There are a few different variations of the learning style theory, but one of the best known is the VARK model, which was proposed by Neil Fleming in the late 1980s. 

Fleming used his observation of how children learn in schools to propose four main learning styles: visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic. 

The theory goes that someone who is a visual learner will find it easier to learn information that is presented in graphs, charts, maps, illustrations, and diagrams. An aural learner will be able to learn from hearing a lecture or discussing information in a group. A read/write learner will learn best by reading and taking notes. And a kinesthetic learner will want to see information in action through demonstrations, experiments, simulations, and case studies. (Some models combine the visual and read/write categories.) 

It’s a compelling idea and it seems to make sense. Most of us can probably point to a style of learning that we feel suits us better than others. So, matching the style of teaching to the learning style of students seems like it should make it easier to learn – regardless of the age of those students. 

However, just because a theory seems logical, doesn’t mean that it is correct. Despite the popularity of models like VARK, there’s little evidence that learning styles actually exist – or at least, that they exist in a way that we can use to make our learning more effective. 

In this blog post, we’ll see why learning styles might not actually make us more effective learners. And we’ll also look at what we can do instead to help us gain new skills and embed new information. 

Learning Styles and Learning Outcomes 

As we’ve seen, the idea that each of us has a preferred learning style is a compelling one. It suggests that, if we understand ourselves better, we can master our learning by tweaking how information is presented to us. 

It also gives us an out. If we’re struggling to learn something, it might not be our fault. Perhaps the information just isn’t presented in a way that suits our learning style. 

Seen from this angle, it is clear why the idea of learning styles remains so popular. 89% of educators worldwide believe that matching the way information is presented to the learning style of students is an effective strategy. 

However, despite the prevalence of belief in learning styles, there’s plenty of evidence to show that this theory isn’t actually effective in improving learning outcomes. 

Various studies have looked at the correlation between receiving instruction in a way that matches perceived learning style and learning outcomes. Typically, these studies involve sorting students into groups based on the results of tests designed to determine their learning styles. 

Students are then given learning materials. Some of each group receive materials that match their learning style, and some are given materials that do not match their learning style. Then, all the students take a test to determine the effectiveness of their learning. 

For example, a 2017 study published in the British Journal of Psychology sorted participants into visual learners and read/write learners (which the study refers to as verbal learners). They then presented the participants with a list of word pairs and a list of picture pairs to study. Finally, the participants were tested on their ability to recall the pictures and words. 

The study found that participants who fell into the visual learner category were more likely to say they had learned better from the picture list and those in the read/write category thought they had learned better from the words list. 

However, when tested, there was no correlation between the style of learning and the participants’ performance on the recall test. 

In other words, the study shows that people do indeed have a preference for different types of learning. This preference just doesn’t translate into better results. 

Similarly, a 2015 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology looked at the effect of learning styles on college-educated adults. The participants were split into visual and aural learners. They were then assigned at random to two groups. 

Both groups were given the same material from a non-fiction book. But one group was given it as an audiobook and the other was given it as an e-text. All the participants then took two comprehension tests – one immediately and the other two weeks later. 

If the learning styles theory holds true, we’d expect the aural learners to perform better if they were in the audiobook group and the visual learners to perform better if they were in the e-text group. 

In fact, the study found no statistically significant correlation between preferred learning style, instruction method, and performance on the comprehension tests. 

The researchers also found that a preference for a particular learning style doesn’t correlate to an aptitude for that type of learning. Just because someone prefers to learn aurally, doesn’t mean they have better listening comprehension than visual learners. 

This matters, because a preference for a learning style is often assumed to mean we’re better at that type of learning. Indeed, that’s the assumption that underlies learning style theories. 

However, the evidence suggests that this isn’t the case. Learning preferences genuinely exist – people really do prefer to learn in different ways. But that doesn’t translate to better learning outcomes. 

So, Learning Styles Don’t Exist? 

Do learning styles exist? It depends on what we mean by that. 

Learning styles in the way they are commonly used find little support from evidence-based studies. Most researchers agree that matching instruction methods to learning styles doesn’t result in better learning outcomes. 

However, learning styles in the sense of a preference for one sort of learning over another do exist, as we’ve seen. You can probably point to your own preferred learning style without much difficulty. 

As a result, VARK and other learning style models might still be useful if we want to understand ourselves and our learning preferences better. But making those preferences the basis of our learning strategies likely won’t help us gain new skills or retain information more effectively. 

What it might do is help us with motivation. At times when our concentration is low and we’re struggling to engage with a learning task, understanding our learning preferences might help us get started. 

The danger comes in relying only on our preferred learning style to help us learn effectively. Just because we prefer to watch a video than read a book (or vice versa), doesn’t mean we should reduce our learning to just one format. 

Indeed, restricting our learning in this way may have the opposite effect. While there’s little support for learning styles, studies show that there are other learning strategies that can help us retain and understand information more effectively. 

One of these is dual coding, which involves combining two different representations of information. For example, text could be accompanied by diagrams or images, or a tutor could explain a concept verbally at the same time as demonstrating it physically. 

The idea is to provide both visual and verbal explanations simultaneously, which is believed to help us process and retain new knowledge. 

Unlike learning styles, the concept of dual coding is supported by investigations into how our brains process information. There are also plenty of studies that show how adding relevant illustrations to textbooks can help us learn more effectively. 

So, regardless of your preferred learning format, you’ll likely find you learn better when you combine different methods of presenting information into your studies. 

How Can We Be More Effective Learners? 

It turns out that using your perceived learning style to determine your study strategy is probably a dead end. Now that you know this, you’re free to experiment with different strategies and ways of learning to help you in your career development. 

Dual coding is one example of a simple learning strategy that can help – combining visual and verbal cues should help you embed information more easily. 

In 2013, a team of psychologists led by John Dunlosky published a paper looking at the effectiveness of ten other learning strategies. They reviewed the evidence and agreed that two of the most effective strategies are distributed practice and practice testing. 

Distributed practice is essentially the opposite of cramming. By spreading our learning over a longer period, we’re more likely to be able to retain it for the long term. 

Even if your learning involves tests and exams – perhaps you are studying for a new professional qualification, for example – you’ll be better served by studying regularly than by trying to cram all this new knowledge into your head in the week before an exam. 

Cramming may help you pass the test, but it doesn’t give you the ability to recall what you’ve learned in the future. Assuming you need this new knowledge in your career, your professional development will benefit from adopting a distributed practice approach. 

As for practice testing – this concept is fairly self-explanatory. When we test our knowledge through quizzes and practice tests, we’re more likely to understand and recall the concepts we’re learning. Practice testing can also help us find areas where our knowledge is weaker, so we can work to fill these gaps. 

One of the key aspects of practice tests is that they are low stakes. Unlike a real exam or a genuine workplace scenario, practice tests don’t have consequences for our development or career performance. But they are a powerful way to embed your learning and ensure that you can understand and remember new information. 

The Importance of Mindset 

So far, we’ve looked at the practicalities of learning – what strategies do and don’t work to help us gain knowledge and skills more effectively. 

However, we also think it is vital to emphasize the importance of mindset. If we want to be the kind of professionals who are always open to learning new ideas and embracing new skills, we need to cultivate a learner’s mindset. 

What does this look like? In a 2016 article in the HRB, coach Erika Anderson identified four attributes shared by people who are always pushing themselves to learn new skills. These include: 

1. Aspiration 

Just like any other area of our careers, learning goes best when we feel motivated and engaged. The desire to learn is the cornerstone of any learning journey – without it, every step will feel like a slog. 

If you find it difficult to get motivated to learn, one strategy is to focus on the benefits you’ll gain from the new skill or knowledge. Think about what it could do for your work and how it might help you reach your professional goals. 

2. Self-Awareness 

Another quality we need to cultivate to be effective learners is self-awareness. When we can honestly evaluate our existing skills and experience, we can identify gaps in our knowledge and recognize our need for professional development. 

3. Curiosity 

The best learners are people who approach new subjects with open-minded curiosity. Studies suggest that a sense of curiosity helps to prepare our brain for learning and makes it more likely that we’ll remember information in the long term. 

Curiosity also invites us to dive deeper into a topic and seek out new insights, meaning we’ll take more away from our learning than we otherwise would. Spark your own curiosity by asking how and why, proposing theories, and investigating the answers. 

4. Vulnerability 

The final attribute that great learners share is the willingness to be vulnerable. Learning something new means starting from the beginning and accepting that we’re not going to be brilliant at it straight away. 

That can feel like a vulnerable place to be, especially for those of us who have already reached a comfortable level of expertise in our existing skills. But the willingness to be a beginner again and accept that we might struggle along the way is necessary if we want to learn new things. 


The concept of learning styles might be blocking us from using effective learning strategies to help us on our path to professional development. Once we understand that learning styles are just a preference, not a reflection of the best way to learn, we can start to seek out strategies that will genuinely aid our learning. 

Most of all, we find success on our learning journeys when we cultivate a learner’s mindset.