Learning Myths

Learning Myths Image

You’re probably familiar with the concept of an urban myth. And perhaps you’re familiar with the Mythbusters TV show, which often takes a look at urban myths and other things people believe might be true and puts them to the credibility test. (Before you go on, feel free to check out this fun list of the “Top Ten Urban Legends” if you’re so inclined.)

In the same way, you’d probably be willing to agree that many professions and fields of study have their own version of urban myths that people new to the field–or even those who have studied, practiced, and worked in the field for a long time–believe even though there’s no evidence to back the idea up or in fact there’s evidence that disproves it. (For example, we’re going back a bit here, but you may be familiar with the idea that the body has four different “humors” that govern our health and behavior).

Well, the sad fact is that the training/learning and development worlds aren’t immune to these kind of urban myths embedded into their own professional beliefs and practices, either. In fact, many people have mistaken ideas about what training methods are truly effective and which ones are just–well, bunk or even marketing hype.

In this article, we’re going to debunk a few of the most common learning myths for you, as well as point you toward some resources where you can learn more. In a future article, we’ll write about some solid, evidence-based training methods that DO improve learning. So watch out for that companion piece to this article. And you may also want to quickly review how people learn, since the way we learn is a big reason why some training methods help us learn and some training methods don’t.

Learning Myths–Training Practices Many of Us THINK Help People Learn

As you might have guessed, the whole idea behind evidence-based training is that there’s evidence that shows us that specific training methods actually help people understand, remember, and later apply stuff. Like the stuff they need to understand, remember, and apply at work.

It’s like evidence-based medicine and similar evidence-based practices, right? And I assume that if you’re going in for medical care soon, you’d like to have a doctor who practices evidence-based medicine instead of one who practices medical myths like the four humors, right? If you agree with this about medicine and doctors, isn’t it a fair assumption that you should also agree with the idea of using evidence-based training practice for learning and development? Isn’t it part of our professional obligation as training and learning professionals to know what works and what doesn’t and do our best to design, develop, and deliver training that works?

And the flip-side to all of this evidence-based stuff is that there are a lot of myths out there. There are things that people THINK work, even though there’s no evidence that they do. Or, in some cases, even though there’s evidence they don’t work. So we should know what these learning myths are and carefully re-evaluate our own training practices to make sure we’re not using them ourselves. And to be sure to tell our friends and coworkers, too. Remember, friends don’t let friends practice learning myths.

Developing Training for Learning Styles: Perhaps the Most Common Learning Myth Out There

Have you ever heard of learning styles, and the idea that all people learn most effectively in one of several different learning styles and that therefore training professionals should design training to accommodate the different learning styles of their learners? (Quick hint: probably the most famous set of learning styles is the one that groups learners into kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners).

This one is pretty common. You hear people talk about learning styles a lot, and you even hear learning professionals talking about them.

But the problem with learning styles is that there’s no evidence that the whole idea is true, or that designing training to match the different learning styles of learners is effective.

But don’t take it from me:

Several reviews that span decades have evaluated the literature on learning styles (e.g., Arter & Jenkins, 1979; Kampwirth & Bates, 1980; Kavale & Forness, 1987; Kavale, Hirshoren, & Forness, 1998; Pashler et al., 2009; Snider, 1992; Stahl, 1999; Tarver & Dawson, 1978), and each has drawn the conclusion that there is no viable evidence to support the theory. Even a recent review intended to be friendly to theories of learning styles (Kozhevnikov, Evans, & Kosslyn, 2014) failed to claim that this prediction of the theory has empirical support. The lack of supporting evidence is especially unsurprising in light of the unreliability of most instruments used to identify learners’ styles (for a review, see Coffield et al., 2004).

Source: Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theoriesTeaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271

There are a lot of problems with the learning style thing. First, there are questions about how you would determine what a person’s learning style is. You might think that people would automatically know their own learning style, but research shows that people typically are pretty bad at evaluating their own learning–what they learned, how well they learned, and why they learned it (see Dr. Will Thalheimer’s excellent book Performance-Focused Smile Sheets for more on this issue). And it’s also not clear we can trust tests to categorize learners into different learning styles. This is similar to the criticism that the well-known Myers-Briggs personality test is meaningless/not useful (or here).

But even if you ignore the difficulties of determining a person’s “true” learning style, there’s still the issue of how you’d create so much personalized training to match the so-called learning styles of a large training population. Realistically, who has that much time and capacity?

So, for now, you might want to shy away from the learning styles theory. There’s no evidence that suggests it’s true or helpful or effective, and there are other evidence-based training practices that we know bring about impactful learning experiences. Why not focus on them?

Note that this doesn’t mean that we won’t someday prove that learning styles are real and that you can design training for learning styles that does improve learning. That’s the nature of science, after all–we keep testing and compiling data and re-evaluating what we believe.

And also note that this doesn’t mean you should do the exact same kind of training all the time for all people and all training needs. People still benefit from a variety of learning experiences, which is part of why blended learning solutions have been shown to be effective, and we know that different kinds of training are more effective for different training needs, such as facts, concepts, processes, procedures, principles, and ill-structured problem-solving.

Other Learning Myths

We won’t go into these learning myths in such detail, but here’s a list of more ideas and practices in the training world that you should raise a skeptical eye toward:

  • Telling people stuff is training
  • Training shouldn’t include humor
  • Rich media always makes training more effective
  • Millennials learn in different ways than older generations do
  • Modern technology has shortened the human attention span to 7 seconds
  • Dale’s Cone of Learning
  • We forget “X” percent of what we learn after “Y” hours (read more about the forgetting curve and spaced practice)
  • The exact percentages of the 70/20/10 learning model (but read more about 70/20/10 here)
  • There is such a thing as a “modern learner”
  • Microlearning is the silver bullet that will solve all learning and training challenges
  • We’ve learned a lot about how to design training from neuroscience (read a debunking of this here)
  • Discovery-based training is effective for novices in a field

Next time you get a chance–maybe tonight or this weekend–do some research on these learning myths to see what the problems are with them.


Where to Learn Even More about Evidence-Based Training and Learning Myths

Where can you learn more about evidence-based training practices and these different learning myths, you ask?

One place I’d suggest starting is the classic book by Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark, Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals. I’d also suggest reading Julie Dirksen’s great, great book Design for How People Learn. And Clark Quinn’s book Millennials, Goldfish, & Other Training Misconceptions is also a good source. Of course, there are lots of other books and scholarly journals on the topic as well, so keep your eyes open.

Another good resource to know about is The Debunker’s Club (both the organization and the web page). According to the Debunker Club website, they are “…a community of over 800 people from around the world, dedicated to debunking learning myths and misconceptions—and advocating for proven evidence-based learning methods.” Sounds like a good group of people to know about, doesn’t it?

Finally, I’ve thrown together a list of learning professionals who discuss and write about evidence-based training practices and learning myths. The list isn’t comprehensive, obviously, and I apologize to any obvious names I’ve neglected to add here. But check out these folks:

Another good place to start is our discussion with Dr. Will Thalheimer on Learning Myths & Learning Maximizers.

Conclusion: Learning Myths Are Bad for Learning–and Possibly, Your Career as a Learning Professional

We hope this look at learning myths in the training profession was helpful to you. Please use the comments section below if you’d like to share some thoughts on learning myths.

And remember this is going to be a two-part article series, with the second article focusing on evidence-based training, so keep an eye out for that.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

4 thoughts on “Learning Myths

  1. Great article Jeffrey. Thanks for including all those links to other resources. For sure things like personality testing, learning styles, and 70:20:10 shouldn’t really be used as a basis for intelligent learning designs. It’s surprising though how easy it is for folks to get attached to a particular ‘theory’ and then stick to it.

    1. Thanks, Ian.

      On the topic of 70:20:10, I like the general idea (which is to facilitate learning that happens in addition to formal, assigned learning) but I just don’t believe the ratio (I’m not sure anyone does).

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