Nutshell: The case for substance over style: five learning techniques that really work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

What are the techniques most likely to work when it comes to learning something? 

We’ve been studying how people learn at work for over a century, resulting in a range of theories, strategies and approaches, some of which have been discredited, disproved or otherwise died a death; others have remained remarkably resilient, not always for the right reasons. 

Many of us, for example, will have come across the idea that one of the most effective ways to learn is through experience. We may also have encountered the idea that identifying a learner’s style and then tailoring learning to match that style is the sure-fire way to success. The VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) Learning Styles Model, originally developed in the 1920s, with the ‘R’ added in the 1980s, has proved to be particularly popular, offering an entire industry of diagnostics and support that has gained wide traction globally, in schools and colleges as well as at work.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a methodology designed to help us learn by suggesting some key, easy-to-implement strategies has proved seductive. Learning can be hard work and we need all the help we can get. There’s also a sort of Myers-Briggs appeal in the idea that how we learn can be personalised and tailored to our own preferences or personality, our own sense of uniqueness.

VARK is based on the simple idea that most of us prefer to learn in one of four ways. If we are a visual learner, we’re likely to get the most bang for our buck out of information presented in visual form, like diagrams, charts or videos. In contrast, a kinesthetic learner prefers a physical experience, responding to a hands-on approach, or the ability to touch or feel an object or prop. The auditory among us learn from listening to a lecture or group discussion, as well as hearing our own contributions. And the reading/writing dominant learner likes words and writing. We may have a more or less strong preference for one or more style, or a combination of them – in this case we’d be a multimodal learner.

Does VARK work?

The big question is: does it work? Unfortunately, it seems that it might just be too good to be true. Critics have suggested that labelling learners as having one style or another can actually be a hindrance to the open-mindedness we need to learn, boiling down too neatly a process much too complex to be contained by simple learning styles. Even when people find that understanding their preferences is helpful – for example, preferring to watch a video than read an article – that doesn’t mean that their preferred learning method will guarantee they’ll be more successful, although it may help by making learning more enjoyable.

In a study reported in Scientific American, a team from Indiana University tracked the performance of over 400 students enrolled in an anatomy class. They plotted performance against the students’ VARK learning styles assessments and the study strategies they deployed – ranging from flash cards and reviewing lecture notes to anatomy colouring books. While most of the students’ VARK scores suggested they used multiple learning styles, there was no evidence that a particular style, or combination of styles, resulted in better outcomes.

It was also clear that, despite being able to identify a learning styles preference, almost two-thirds of the students then failed to choose study strategies to support that preference. And even those students who did match their study strategies to their preferred style performed no better for having and using that knowledge. It’s hard not to conclude that learning styles are at best a distraction – sometimes even a barrier – when it comes to student awareness of the processes and behaviours that help us to understand and retain information. So, if the world of learning styles – and even preferences – isn’t the answer to how we learn, then what is?

In their 2020 book, Evidence Informed Learning Design, learning experts Mirjam Neelen and Paul A Kirschner give us the benefit of their professional experience by identifying their top five, empirically-proven strategies for learning – as well as five more to avoid. Here’s our take on what they have to say. 

Top five ingredients: effective learning strategies

1. Space it out. This involves studying nuggets of learning content over time rather than cramming everything in at once, and leaving longer periods (one or more days) between practice sessions. The idea is that the ‘pause’ between sessions strengthens our memory trace, as we must then retrieve it in the next study session. 

The thinking behind this theory has a long history. Way back in the 1880s, German mathematician Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted research to show the speed at which people forget. His famous forgetting curveshowed the rate at which people forget information if that information has no meaning for the learner and if there’s no attempt to remember it. Ebbinghaus found that, if new information isn’t applied, we’ll forget about 75% of it after just six days.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Steve Glaveski blames our biology for this seemingly careless disregard for retaining new information: our brains are so good at conserving energy for our innate, evolutionary desire for survival, they “quickly forget what we don’t use”. 

The basis of spaced (or distributed) learning, proposed by psychologist Cecil Alec Mace in 1932, is that a series of short sessions that force us to retrieve the previous learned ‘stuff’ from our long-term memory makes the memory trace stronger each time. Accordingly, the slope of forgetting, which was steep at the beginning, becomes increasingly less steep with each session. Glaveski quotes studies that show that, by using spaced repetition, we can remember about 80% of what we learn after 60 days. That’s quite an improvement. 

You’ll also notice that we deliberately repeat and reinforce core ideas over the course of the programme across different modules.

Above: Typical forgetting curve showing the improvement of retention using spaced learning. 

2. Practise. Practise. Practise. Retrieval practice is sometimes called the ‘testing effect’ because it’s not simple memorisation; it’s about applying what we’ve learned to deepen understanding. For example, we can test what we’ve learned through short quizzes, self-explanation (see below) or practice questions. Researchers have found that repeated testing works better than one-time testing and that short, varied test formats are most effective. Regular feedback from a teacher or mentor, or in the case of this programme, your coach, also helps. 

3. Mix it up. This idea involves varying, or interweaving, the strategies and approaches used to learn something; for example, by mixing watching videos or reading articles to explore a new theory, followed up by a range of exercises or hands-on application at work. This is also why we’ve tried to mix up how information is presented in this programme, through a variety of events, resource formats and assessment activities and exercises.

Similarly, rather than learning something in one block, the sequence in which topics are learned or explored can be mixed up, helping us to connect the dots between several ideas, and encouraging us to apply different strategies in different contexts. The idea is that, while mixing up resources or sequences might mean it takes longer to learn something, it also helps us to learn deeper and better. 

4. Keep questioning. This involves challenging ourselves to explain why something we’ve learned is actually the case. 

It works because of a process known as assimilation, a cognitive process that manages how we incorporate new information into our prior knowledge. 

5. Teach ourselves, or others. It’s claimed that the best way to learn something is to teach it; this simply involves explaining to ourselves what we’ve just learned – another form of assimilation. It’s also why your coach might, at times, ask you to present and teach a particular topic in your study group sessions to other learners.

Flop five: ineffective learning strategies

  1. Visualisation: Visualising what we need to learn can work for something that’s easy to visualise (a simple process, perhaps), but only works for memorising, not for applying what we’ve learned. 
  2. Mnemonics: Devising a ‘key’ that connects to what you need to know can work as a trigger in the short term, but it’s a time-consuming strategy that isn’t effective or efficient for most of us – memory champions excepted, perhaps. 
  3. Summarising: Summarising something by writing down the main points or themes may sound like the ultimate form of retrieval practice, but it only works if you’re skilled in summarising. Often, that’s not the case. 
  4. Highlighting and underlining: It’s much too easy to underline too much or the wrong things – and simply running a highlighter over or underlining text is not the same as studying and learning. Highlighting on its own is not enough. 
  5. Re-reading: Re-reading to improve understanding might have a positive effect on memorising what’s being learned, but, again, on its own, it doesn’t contribute to better understanding or being able to apply that information in different contexts. That’s because re-reading can give a false sense of security: when re-reading, we recognise what we’ve read before – and think we already know it. That’s not necessarily the case.

When it comes to learning, it seems that the tried and tested trumps even the most popular and appealing learning styles methodology, with universal strategies more effective than the seemingly personalised. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having a preference for a type or style of learning material, although mixing things up, as we’ve seen, also has its advantages. But it’s hard to accept the claims made for learning styles as a shortcut to success. Learning can be hard – it requires planning, effort and perseverance. All the more reason why we need to understand what can really help us learn best.

How good are you at learning? Take the quiz

Question 1: 

You have to give an important presentation in a few days’ time, and the format means you’ll need to present mostly without notes. How will you prepare? 

A: By highlighting the key messages you want to give in three different colours.

B: By staying up late the night before, cramming, so that you remember what you plan to say. 

C: By practising your speech in front of a trusted friend.  

Question 2: 

You promised your boss a summary of that research report, but it’s proving to be a tough nut to crack. Do you: 

A: Keep re-reading the more technical passages?

B: Take a break, go outside and do something different for a while?

C: Get that highlighter out again…?

Question 3: 

There’s no getting away from it. You’ll just need to know those stats in that upcoming client meeting on Friday. It’s a busy week, so you have only limited time to prepare. Do you: 

A: Attempt to commit them to memory just before the meeting?

B: Spend some time on them every day this week?

C: Construct a complicated mnemonic that will help get you through?

Question 4: 

Your business has some important new safeguarding protocols, and you need your team to know about, and engage with, them. Do you: 

A: Send them a link to the revised staff handbook and hope for the best?

B: Prepare and deliver a PowerPoint highlighting the key changes?

C: Ask them to review the new guidelines, share some video links and then invite them to lead a debate on why safeguarding is important?


Q1: Answer: C. 

Practice works because it involves applying and testing what you need to know. This can be reinforced when you receive feedback along the way. 

Q2: Answer: B. 

Give your brain a break. There’s plenty of research which shows that taking a break and detaching from the task at hand allows our brains to relax and make the necessary connections to resolve seemingly unresolvable conundrums. 

Q3: Answer: B.

Spaced or distributed learning helps us to retain what we’re learning because the ‘pause’ between sessions strengthens our memory trace, as we have to retrieve the information when we go back to it on more than one occasion.  

Q4: Answer: C.
Interweaving involves mixing up different strategies and approaches to learning. In this case, leading the debate encourages team members to apply what they’ve learned. Asking questions about what they’re learning and teaching others provides added reinforcement. 

Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.