5-second summary
  • In the 1970s and 80s, learning styles gained popularity. Educators and scientists developed multiple frameworks, such as VARK, to show the ways people learn best.
  • Recent research has debunked learning styles and promoted learning preferences instead. 
  • Atlassian’s Head of Customer Education, Marshall Walker Lee, shares four key tips to help teams effectively expand their knowledge and achieve more together.

“Oh, I really love podcasts and audiobooks. Listening is the best way for me to learn.” 

“I’m going to take some notes during our meeting. That helps me absorb what we’re talking about.”

“Can I try it myself? I learn best by doing.”

All of these are things we’ve probably heard someone say, or even said ourselves. But it turns out this widely accepted notion of learning styles and preferences is more of a feeling, not a fact. 

In reality, fans of podcasts and audiobooks don’t necessarily learn more from listening – it’s just the easiest or most entertaining way for them to consume information.  

learning styles vs learning preferences

According to Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, learning styles describe “how learners gather, sift through, interpret, organize, come to conclusions about, and store information for further use.”

A slight twist on the same concept, learning preferences describe how learners want or choose to take in information.

Our beliefs about learning styles likely stem from many factors: research from decades ago, the natural desire to define what “type of person” we are, and to feel like a unique individual in highly standardized educational settings. 

Let’s set the record straight: Learning styles and preferences don’t actually impact outcomes or performance.

Research now shows there is little to no connection between any particular learning style and how much information you absorb or retain. That means self-professed “visual learners” don’t learn better by watching, “auditory learners” don’t learn better by listening, and so on. 

So, how can we all be more successful when learning? To find out, we talked to the Atlassian Customer Education Team, who has firsthand experience supporting adult learners through their work upskilling and empowering Atlassian users to be more effective in their work.

Here’s what their team says about why learning styles don’t impact results, and how we can use more effective approaches to learning.

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The 4 learning styles – and why they don’t actually help us learn 

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Observations and theories about differences in how people learn have been around since at least Aristotle, who observed that individual learners benefit from approaches that are tailored to their prior knowledge and experiences.

Then, in the 1970s, learning styles gained popularity. The concept made some intuitive sense: Each person learns in a different way, and if we can each understand how we learn best, we can be more successful at it. This was an attractive idea for both students (or anyone taking in information) and educators (or anyone sharing information). 

Some of the most popular learning style frameworks were developed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 70s, educational psychologist Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed three ways of learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (movement and touch) – often referred to as VAK. New Zealand teacher Neil D. Fleming later expanded on this to add “reading/writing” as a learning style, creating the VARK framework that is often still used today.

VARK learning styles

Developed by Walter Burke Barbe and Neil D. Fleming

Absorbs and retains information better when it is presented visually, such as in pictures, charts, and diagrams 

Prefers listening to what is being taught or shared, such as in a lecture, group discussion, or conversation

Takes in new information best when they read it and/or write it down 

Prefers learning through physical experiences, such as doing hands-on work or touching the object they’re learning about

Many people interpreted the VARK model to mean that each person has one primary way of learning. However, scientists have not only proven that this isn’t the case, but have more or less debunked the entire VARK framework.

“Just because a notion is popular, however, doesn’t make it true,” says Professor of Psychology Cindy May in a 2018 Scientific American article. “A recent review of the scientific literature on learning styles found scant evidence to clearly support the idea that outcomes are best when instructional techniques align with individuals’ learning styles. In fact, there are several studies that contradict this belief. It is clear that people have a strong sense of their own learning preferences (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, intuitive), but it is less clear that these preferences matter.”

Easy learning doesn’t mean effective learning

Left brain vs. right brain: fact or fiction?

As Professor May points out, people often prefer to learn in certain ways. However, Atlassian Head of Customer Education Marshall Walker Lee and Senior Learning Experience Designer Ellen Walter share that ease is often mistakenly conflated with effectiveness.

“People think that if learning is easy, it’s effective. Research shows the opposite is true: Feeling challenged actually helps information stick in our minds,” Ellen explains. 

Rather than leaning on learning styles or preferences, evidence supports other methods to enhance the way we gain knowledge. “Knowing learning preferences is most helpful for getting someone’s attention, not achieving better outcomes,” Marshall says. “For example, we know a lot of people prefer learning by watching, so with Atlassian’s customer education materials, we present videos to pique their interest, then pull them deeper into the learning experience.”

By understanding the ways we learn and using scientifically proven techniques, we can get our minds more engaged and help the information truly “click.”

Understanding the ways we really learn

Even though VARK specifically – and learning styles in general – lack supporting evidence, there are plenty of research-backed models and frameworks we can use to improve the way we consume and retain information. 

For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy – which dates even further back than VARK – classifies the different levels of learning and shares that achieving higher levels of knowledge requires mastering each level below first.

Bloom's taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy

“Bloom’s Taxonomy basically says the best evidence that you know something is that you can teach it,” Marshall explains. “We see this in the 70-20-10 model too, which proposes that adults learn through three primary channels: 70% from hands-on experiences, 20% from interactions with others, and 10% from formal learning.”

The 70-20-10 learning model

70% experiences
Learning from on-the-job experiences, challenges, and assignments

20% interactions
Learning from interactions with others, such as colleagues, mentors, or coaches

10% formal learning
Traditional learning methods, like classroom training, workshops, or reading materials

There are many other theories on how adults learn best, including the Kirkpatrick Model, performance-based learning, and Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory. Marshall says all of these have helpful takeaways to support learning. However, it’s best to think of them more as a starting point than a silver bullet. “A framework isn’t a solution to every problem,” he explains. “Understanding the learner’s unique context and challenges, including their readiness to learn, their motivation to learn, and how they will apply their new knowledge, is essential to producing the best outcomes.”

As our understanding of the way we learn has evolved, so has the way lessons are designed. In fact, a big trend in instructional design is to employ principles of user experience design and design thinking. Both concepts begin with empathizing with user needs and defining their goals for the product or experience before brainstorming, creating, and refining a solution. 

“It’s not that the ‘old way’ of doing instructional design has changed, but rather, the discipline has expanded,” Marshall says. “We can learn from the principles of UX design. And when you combine UX design with instructional design, that’s when really powerful things happen.” Marshall’s team includes both instructional designers and learning experience designers on their Content Design team.

4 tips for learning at work

No matter what role or industry you’re in, the world of work is rapidly changing. Our individual and collective success depends on our knowledge and skills changing with it. 

Here are four key tips Marshall and his teams recommend for others looking to expand their knowledge and achieve more together. 

Build a culture of learning

How (and why) you should embrace a growth mindset

Another user experience design principle we can draw inspiration from is embracing iteration and progress over perfection. We can apply this principle to professional development by working toward building a culture of learning. 

“Building a culture of learning is essential!” Marshall says. “That starts with creating a psychologically safe environment (where people feel safe to take risks and learn from their mistakes) and embracing a growth mindset. Leaders also have to support this culture of learning by modeling it and investing in it.” 

Make time and space for learning, with help from others

“Learning often happens naturally on the job, but you also have to be intentional about keeping your skills fresh and expanding your knowledge,” Marshall says. “Set aside dedicated time for training and upskilling on a regular basis, whether that’s taking a new course once a month, scheduling one-on-ones or peer feedback sessions once per quarter, or doing rituals like sprint retros. A combination is even better.”

Marshall recommends encouraging knowledge sharing through this process. “Removing barriers for knowledge sharing – and even incentivizing people to do it – can help improve the collective intelligence of the team, deepens comprehension through teaching each other, and helps people feel more connected and creative,” he explains. “When you share your knowledge, you help others avoid repeating your mistakes or reinventing a wheel you’ve built, and when ideas cross-pollinate in a team, innovation is more likely.”

Seek out relevant programs that foster connections

“Two learning philosophies I personally find interesting and compelling are connectivism and andragogy,” Marshall shares. 

Connectivism suggests learning is a continuous process of creating connections between information and experiences.

Andragogy highlights that adults are self-directed learners, who are motivated by intrinsic factors and prefer learning experiences that are relevant to their needs, as opposed to children, who are often compelled to learn by outside forces.

To maximize learning, Marshall recommends seeking out programs that incorporate these principles. “Look for professional development programs that are directly related to what you want to learn and that leverage online communities, social learning opportunities, and knowledge-sharing platforms to foster connections. These types of programs are more likely to be engaging and effective for adult learners.”

Use proven learning methods to your advantage – even when it’s difficult

Knowing how we learn can help teams engage, absorb, and retain more, as well as push through when the process gets hard. Atlassian Senior Experience Learning Designer Becky Mueller says, “Learning is difficult – and that’s not a bad thing. Don’t rely on what feels best. Use these strategies to validate your knowledge and skills.” 

Marshall adds, “In Customer Education, we use knowledge of preferences to grab a learner’s attention and get them engaged in learning. But our goal is to equip learners with the knowledge and skills they need regardless of rigid preference categories.”

He adds that his team is fans of the book Make it Stick, which has a chapter dedicated to moving beyond learning styles. “Don’t roost in a pigeonhole of your preferred learning style,” the authors write. “But take command of your resources and tap all of your intelligences to master the knowledge or skill you want to possess.” 

Make It Stick also includes practical tips and strategies for effective learning: 

Putting this approach into practice, let’s say you work with Jira Cloud and want to advance your skills. You could work toward the “Managing Jira Cloud Projects” Certification through Atlassian University over the course of several weeks. After taking the formal training, which includes material in many formats, you could test your new knowledge by working in a Jira test project or shadowing a colleague. Then, you’ll continue to hone your skills on the job as you experience Jira Cloud during everyday work. (This also aligns with the 70-20-10 model!)

I am still learning.

Michelangelo (age 87)

Even after over 70 years of painting and sculpting, the great Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo said, “Ancora imparo”: I am still learning. Michelangelo may not have known about learning styles or preferences, but there’s no doubt he was immersed in a culture of learning and invested in honing his craft throughout his life. 

Whether you’re striving to be the Michelangelo of your field, working toward a promotion, or exploring something new purely for enjoyment, learning nourishes your mind and helps you become an even more valuable member of your team. The more we learn and share our knowledge, the more our collective wisdom grows, enabling us to accomplish together what would be impossible alone. 

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Why learning styles don’t work – and proven ways to learn more effectively