Do Learners REALLY Know What They Want?

 In eLearning Brothers

Instructional design can be a controversial field. There are so many learning methods and theories out there. Education overall is constantly influenced by new technological trends and emerging research and cultural shifts.

How do you know which teaching strategy to follow? How do you know what will satisfy your end user, the learners you are trying to reach?

A 2013 paper by Paul A Kirschner and Jeroen JG van Merriënboer, Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education tackled three popular myths in education:

  1. learners as digital natives
  2. learners have specific learning styles
  3. learners as self-educators (on the internet)

Digital Natives

Digital natives is a term that’s been tossed around for a while now. It describes people born after 1984 who supposedly just naturally know how to use technology and learn from new media. Supposedly, the “old” media and methods used in teaching no longer work for them or aren’t their desired way to learn.

Kirschner argues that “we hurt students, rather than help them learn, when we assume they have certain unique technological skills.”

Learning Styles

Learning styles essentially is a way of dividing students by those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences. Many people still tailor their training development to appeal to different learning styles.

A recent study, Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students’ Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported VARK Learning Styles, had students complete the VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) learning styles evaluation and report details about the techniques they used for mastering material outside of class. The researchers then tracked class performance and what study techniques each student actually used.

Scientific American published a really interesting article about learning styles and that study that I recommend reading if you have time, but the gist of the study results was this: “most students are not employing study strategies that mesh with self-reported learning preferences, and the minority who do show no academic benefit.”

Donald Clark, founder of Plan B Learning, describes learning styles as a “disastrous waste of time,” along with “Other faddish outcomes over-sensitive to supposed learner needs have been Myers-Briggs, NLP and no end of faddish ideas about what we ‘think’ learners need, rather than what research tells us they actually benefit from.”


There is also the idea that learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be given maximum control over what they are learning and their learning path.

Robert A Bjork, a respected name in the learning field, has done a lot of research into how we learn versus how we think we learn. His conclusion is that learning is quite misunderstood by learners and that we have a flawed model of how we learn and remember. The study I referenced early about the learning styles and how the students didn’t do any better when using their supposed preferred learning styles backs this up.

Bjork’s research actually shows that “Conditions of instruction that appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, often optimize long-term retention and transfer.”

He recommends these techniques:

  • Varying the conditions of learning
  • Distributing or spacing study or practice sessions
  • Using tests (rather than presentations) as learning events
  • Providing “contextual interference” during learning (e.g., interleaving rather than blocking practice)


Interesting how he doesn’t mention learning styles or digital natives or anything in there.


So, do learners REALLY know what they want?



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