Conference Education: Moving From Learning Style Myths To Evidenced-Based

An Event Apart Design Conference - December 2009 - San Francisco, CA

Meeting professionals are long overdue to retire learning style myths in favor of evidenced-based education. (So are ASAE and the Convention Industry Council-CIC-which promotes unscientific learning styles in the CMP Handbook!)

It’s time for conference organizers to bridge the gap between learning research and practice.

It’s time to bring the research into the conference planning for successful education and learning.

Beyond Education Fads And Fiction

“Unlike medicine, agriculture and industrial production, the field of education operates largely on the basis of ideology and professional consensus. As such it is subject to fads and is incapable of the cumulative progress that follows from the application of the scientific method…We will change education to make it an evidence-based field,” U.S. Department of Education (2002), 48.

The progress to evidenced-based education has been slow. The progress to evidenced-based conference education is practically non-existent. 

The time has come for meeting professionals to embrace evidenced-based education. The time is now to retire learning style myths in favor of more valid, scientifically proven instructional design. 

Time To Let Go Of Outdated Models

About 400 years ago people believed that the body was made of four basic substances, called the four humors. The four humors were blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile.

When a person was healthy, the four humors were in balance. An excess or deficit of one of those humors lead to disease and disability. The scientific method and modern medical science discredited humorism but people refused to let go of old beliefs until the middle of the 20th Century.

Just like letting go of the four humors, the time has come for conference organizers to let go of learning styles. It’s time to adopt evidenced-based education. We now have a sufficient body of related evidence to inform our conference instructional decisions.

It is time to let go of learning styles, VARK, learning preferences, right and left brain hemisphericity and other outdated models. It’s time to put to bed auditory learners, visual learners, sensors, intuitive and other learning style flavors. It’s time to accept and practice evidenced-based education. 

Fallacies Of Learning Styles

We now have enough scientific evidence that shows when we are learning something new, we are all visual learners. (Forget what VARK says! The scientific research now proves differently.) We all benefit from a relevant visual added to words.

We are all auditory learners. Evidence shows that when viewing a complex animated visual, we benefit from an audio explanation, rather than a detailed text.  (Forget what VARK says!)

Room Environments Or Prior Knowledge: What’s More Important?

What’s more important when learning new information? Prior knowledge!

Conference participants with related prior knowledge to a specific topic actually have mental models in the long term memory. That helps them connect new information. Those with prior experience can benefit from a free-flowing open space learning environment.

On the other hand, novices need more defined structure of a stair-step approach to education. Thrust novices into an open space concept and they’ll fail. The brain has no prior knowledge or experience to connect with new information.

Conference organizers would be better off investing resources in assessing prior knowledge of conference attendees. Then they could prescribe education that tailors instruction. They could tailor both content and instructional tactics.

This is more important than investing money in new types of room sets and seating! Changing how and where the participant sits as well as the furniture without changing the instructional design is just a waste of money.

My hope and wish is that meeting professionals will redirect resources invested in new room sets and learning styles to evidenced-based instructional techniques.

Why are learning styles and preferences so prevalent in our conference education? Why is there such an emphasis on new room sets and furniture in conference planning and an avoidance of improvement in instructional design? Why does the Convention Industry Council continue to promote scientifically proven inaccurate learning styles as part of the CMP process?

Want more scientific proof about why learning styles are a myth? Here are a few references:

Bligh, D.A. (2000) What’s The Use Of Lectures

Clark, R.C. & R.E. Mayer, (2008) Learning by viewing versus learning by doing: Evidenced based guidelines for principled learning environments

Cook, D.A., W.G. Thompson, K.G. Thomas & M.R. Thomas (2009) Lack of interaction between sensing-intuitive learning styles and problem-first versus ifnormation-first instruction

Haidet, P., R.O> Morgan, K. O’Malley, B.J. Moran & B.F. Richards (2004) A controlled trial of active versus passive learning strategies in a large group setting.

Kratzig, G.P., & K.D. Arbuthnott. (2006) Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of hypothesis

Moreno, R. (2006) Does the modality principle hold for different media? A test of methods-affects-kearning hypothesis

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  1. Tyra Hilliard says:

    Do you have the full references for these articles? I’d be interested in reading them. There are a million theories on how we learn and as a college professor, I’m not convinced that learning styles have gone the way of the four humors. I see evidence of the differences every day.

    I’m all for improving instructional design but I think we have to focus on the receiver (participants) and not just the sender (instructor).

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. Good for you for taking this controversial yet proven stand

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading, commenting…and more importantly considering!

      First, I was a huge Learning Styles advocate, teacher and presenter in the 1980s. I lived and breathed it. You can read my personal struggle at having to unlearn that information in light of empirical evidence. I was living proof of “confirmation bias” where my own experiences made me favor information that confirmed my perceptions or hypothesis, independently of whether they were true. Learning To Unlearn, Learn & Relearn

      Here are some links to get you started:
      Learning Styles And Pedagogy: A Systematic And Critical Review (Free download of review of 13 learning style theories)

      The Association for Psychological Science (APS) 2009 report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest on learning styles (including the VAK/VARK strategies).

      Evidenced-Based Training Methods by Ruth Colvin Clark (ASTD book) includes six pages of references about learning styles, scientific method and evidence-based training methods. The ones I listed above came from Clark’s reference list.

      Evidenced-Based Training: Debuning Myths Of Learning Styles
      Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers questions About How The Mind Works by Daniel T. Willingham – great application for adults as well, Willingham goes through detailed analysis on current brain research and learning styles. A must read for all teachers and presenters.

      Brain Rules by John Medina Medina goes to great effort to illustrate how the brain learns and retains information and how its contrary to learning styles. It’s worth purchasing! You’ll enjoy it.

      The Myth Of Learning Styles by Olivia Mitchell.

      Hope that helps some.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence! Appreciate it.

  3. Ken Sien says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I find your comments intriguing and hope this generates more discussion from all varying opinions. You make some valid points but will also find those who disagree with your opinion. There are some who are very passionate about the different learning styles. I know that for me, different room sets don’t necessarily help me learn better. I hope that everyone reading this will share their opinion.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      There are many within the meetings industry that will disagree with me.

      Yet they will have a hard time finding empirical evidence to back what they believe. Their personal convictions will outweigh science and facts. I just wish more meeting professionals would take a look at the facts and adopt evidence-based education. In my opinion, evidence-based education is still about what is best for the learner, not the presenter. It just helps the presenter design education that meets the learner’s needs and how the learner’s brain operates. 🙂

  4. […] 7 weeks on trail mix and … found Julian Graves shop?, Conference Education: From Learning Style Myths To Evidenced-Based Conference Education: Moving From Learning Style Myths To Evidenced-Based […]

  5. Tyra Hilliard says:


    Thanks for the awesome articles and readings and for raising the issue. I’m positively salivating over making it my weekend reading. I love to learn more about how people learn and completely agree with Ken (hi, Ken!) that I don’t much care how a room is set–it doesn’t influence my learning.

    I’m always happy to read differing points of view. Must be the lawyer in me.


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