Strategy over Style

Learning style are a myth, strategies are the real deal

Recently, I was reading another “How to be a more productive developer”-post on Twitter. I read a lot of these, because I’m also constantly trying to improve myself, constantly looking for new nuggets of information.

What bothered me about this one specifically, was the mention of “knowing your learning style improves your learning”. While seemingly common knowledge… learning styles are a myth and might be hurting you. Let me explain.

What are learning styles?

Learning styles refer to the idea that individuals have preferred ways of learning, and that certain teaching methods are better suited to certain individuals based on their learning style. While there are many ways to divide learning into groups, VARK is probably the most well known. It assigns learners into 4 groups: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Reading/Writing.

Diagram showing the 4 learnign styles: visual, auditory, reading & writing and kinesthetic
Image Credit: Images - Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This concept has been widely embraced by educators and learners alike, with many people believing that identifying and catering to an individual’s learning style can improve their ability to learn and retain information.

Learning styles don’t help, they undermine

The problem is, there is no proof to support the idea the learning styles model helps! Weird, isn’t it? It feels like it should be correct. However, many studies have tried to investigate the claim and none of them found any data to support it.

On the contrary! The American Psychological Association (APA) wrote a press release in 2019 titled: Belief in Learning Styles Myth May Be Detrimental. In this press release they state that:

Previous research has shown that the learning styles model can undermine education in many ways… … Students study in ways that match their perceived learning style even though it won’t help them succeed.

From: American Psychological Association. (2019, May 29). Belief in learning styles myth may be detrimental

So not only do learning styles not help, they also distract learners by putting them on the wrong path.

Imagine a developer who considers themselves to be a “reading/writing style learner”. Because they believe in the learning styles, they are less likely to exhibit behavior of the other learning styles. They’ll be biased to think “I learn better from books” and will, as a result, pick up a book instead of trying other methods, even when other forms of learning materials might be of higher quality. This quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because their learning style is the only one they really try.

From style to strategy!

So if learning styles don’t really work, then what does? The answer might be learning strategies. While there are many strategies, 2 of them have been proven to work across a wide range of topics and ability levels: Retrieval and Distributed Practice.

Retrieval Practice

The main purpose of learning isn’t to store things in our brains, it’s to be able to quickly and efficiently retrieve information stored in that head of ours! Improving this retrieval is essential and it can be trained with something which is often called retrieval practice.

Picture showing flash cards
Photo credit: konrad.lawson on Flickr | CC BY 2.0

So how do you practice retrieval? In the book The Programmers Brain, author Felienne Hermans explicitly mentions the use of Flash Cards. The idea is pretty simple.

  • You take a few cards, or other pieces of paper;
  • On one side, you write a question or word, for example: “What does SOLID stand for?”
  • On the other side, you write the thing you want to remember, in this case: “Single-responsibility principle, Open-Closed principle, Liskov substitution principle, Interface segregation principle and dependency inversion principle.”

By reading the front of the cards and trying to remember what’s on the other side, you are training your ability to retrieve information from your brain. The more you practice this, the more fluently your brain will be able to hand you the answer! When this becomes too easy, it’s time to remove the card from the deck and create a new one with something you want to learn.

Friend and badass Simone de Gijt uses the analogy of a pathway in her talk: Wired. The more you walk the pathway, the easier it becomes to walk it! Her talk is gold if you want to learn more about how your brain works, so be sure to check out!

This is Simone giving a Keynote presentation at Voxxed Cluj in Romania!

If physical cards don’t work for you, a great app I’ve seen being mentioned for this is Anki, which allows you to create and manage your flashcards!

Distributed Practice

We’ve all been there, trying to cram in a lot of material before an exam… only to forget most of it after the exam ends. Cramming just isn’t an effective practice if you want to retain knowledge.

Many studies have shown that distributed practice of material over time is much more effective. This time between practice sessions can be a couple of minutes, to several hours or days.

A good example of this is the app Duolingo. Duolingo uses spaced repetition, which is a form of distributed practice, to help users retain information. This means that users are presented with the same material at increasing intervals of time, allowing them to review and retain the information better. You can apply the same principle for your own learning.

Break free from learning styles, use a strategy!

In conclusion, it’s not so much about which type of learning materials you use, nor how they match your perceived learning style (myth!). The real impact on your learning lies in the choice of learning strategy, 2 of which I highlighted in this post.

Distributed and Retrieval practice are not mutually exclusive! You can greatly benefit when you combine them! There are many more Learning Strategies, some of which I’ll dive into in a next blog post.

So no, you are not an X-style learner, you can learn using any good resource you find, whether it’s audio, video or a good book!

The world is full of great resources that are useful to you! Don’t let the myth of learning styles hold you back from discovering them all!

Until next time! Lots of 💖


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