Placebo pill learning styles

Learning’s Placebo Effect

Fulcrum Labs
138 posts

A placebo drug won’t cure you, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t make you feel better.

The medical community has long acknowledged the placebo effect – a beneficial upshot that’s not attributed to any real medical intervention – and the power of a person’s belief in the treatment. But the placebo effect isn’t just a medical phenomenon; it’s also alive and well in learning and training. In fact, one of learning’s most powerful placebos is something pretty much everyone is familiar with: learning styles.


Learning Styles Debunked


Visual, Auditory, Reading or Kinesthetic – we’ve all heard of these learning styles. And if you’ve attended school anytime from the late 1970s to today, then you’ve probably categorized yourself within this framework.

The trouble is that learning styles don’t really work. In fact, study after study has debunked “learning styles” as an effective methodology for learning. (See below for research). This is because the neurobiological processes that underlie learning and memory work the same for all incoming information. So, whether a learner reads content or listens to the content, the brain filters and encodes learning the same way. One format is simply not more effective than another.


The Power of Belief


But just because there is no demonstrable scientific relationship between learning styles and learning efficacy, doesn’t mean that learning styles aren’t a valuable tool. The key lies in learner belief.

In psychology, there’s a principal called “belief perseverance” which essentially states that once you believe something you’ll filter out evidence to the contrary. Most people simply believe that they learn better through a particular learning style (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, reading). In fact, as late as 2014, nearly 90% of educators in various countries believed in learning styles. Additionally, according to a recent article from Scientific American:


Indeed the notion that people learn in different ways is such a pervasive belief in American culture that there is a thriving industry dedicated to identifying learning styles and training teachers to meet the needs of different learners.”


It’s clear that people have a strong sense of their individual learning preferences. And, just as with a placebo drug, if people believe that the treatment (the learning style) is working, then might they experience some benefit from it?

We think so.


Benefits of Learning Styles for Adult Learners


The truth is that, especially in adult learning, honoring the preferences of the learner is an important component of a positive, effective learning environment. In fact, andragogy tells us that adult learners have a strong concept of self – they feel that they know themselves and can determine what course of action is best for them – and don’t want others imposing their wills on them.

If learners have predetermined learning preferences or abilities (e.g. some people read better than others; some people hear worse than others), then a learning environment should allow them to exercise their learning inclinations – if not for improved learning efficacy, then for improved learning experiences.

In fact, our platform’s unique multimodal approach allows learners to choose how they prefer to engage with the content. They can Read (text and images), Watch (animation, live-action, or any other form of multimedia), or Practice (a variety of interactive, adaptive assessments). And they can do so in any order they choose. So, a learner who believes they learn best by “reading” can read the content, whereas another learner who believes they’re more of a kinesthetic learner can get a more hands-on approach through practice assessments. This approach allows people to control their learning experience, which has been shown to greatly increase engagement and motivation. It also capitalizes on people’s pre-existing learning beliefs to make for a more positive user experience. In fact, even in “challenging” compliance training (previously viewed negatively as “dull” and “a waste of time”) we’ve seen over 80% positive user feedback and learner reactions like:


“All three modalities together were a good combination. They complimented each other for a well-rounded learning experience.” 


While learning styles might not cure your organization’s knowledge deficiencies, they can offer placebo-like benefits to learner performance and outcomes.

For more information about Fulcrum Labs’ multimodal feature, check out this short video. Or contact us directly to learn how we leverage technology and learning science to deliver more effective, efficient learning and training.