Learning styles are a myth: What really works in medical education

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Written by Stephanie Wasek, Scientific Director

When we write learning objectives for educational programmes aimed at healthcare professionals, they often go a little something like this:

  • Understand the mechanism of action/new data/outcomes for Product A
  • Determine Product A’s place in the clinical pathway compared with other options
  • Be able to apply the information for Product A to clinical practice

These are fairly straightforward (although we can improve objective writing, which is another blog entirely) and well-developed medical education will provide information that helps to meet each of these goals. But we won’t achieve the objectives we carefully craft if the content doesn’t stick in the minds of audiences. And that’s partly down to good writing but – more importantly (sorry, fellow medical writers) – it’s down to how we deliver the information.
When I say that, I don’t mean delivered according to a ‘learning style’, such as kinesthetic, auditory or visual. The concept of learning styles is a myth that has been debunked repeatedly. The good news, though, is that education that sticks is pretty much the same for everyone, regardless of audience type or knowledge level. The key factor is building effective delivery strategies throughout your content.

Improve learning outcomes by:

  • Incorporating repetition of information
  • Providing opportunities for knowledge check ins
  • Enabling learner analysis and problem solving
  • Effectively utilising self-directed learning

Get clever about repetition

There are several ways to do this. You could find different ways to express the same information verbally, and then ensure those different-but-same messages appear multiple times – for example, across a symposium. If you work from approved messages in a scientific communications plan to ensure consistency, then it’s a matter of ensuring those messages appear across a variety of formats, such as research summaries, videos and infographics. Even better if you can recontextualise the key messages, to help imbue the data with meaning through repetition. As a bonus, getting clever about repetition also supports the best practice of accommodating user preferences regarding reading, listening and watching – these actions may not constitute learning styles, but the variety is still vital.

Provide frequent opportunities for check-ins

Building in frequent, low-stakes, short check-ins, such as knowledge quizzes and 5-minute skills activities, is important for two reasons. First – and most obviously – these provide easy ways for learners to test themselves, without pressure. By getting answers right, they receive affirmation. And when they get it wrong? They’ll remember it next time. Second, intermittent assessments, as opposed to one large test at the end, punctuate the flow of learning, and prevent information overload. Slowing down the pace of learning is another best practice, and it doesn’t mean that you make the learning longer in response, but rather that you optimise learning by combining the didactic with check-ins.

Present ‘desirable difficulties’

Learners bristle at not getting everything right immediately. But what you might not realise is that’s exactly what we want them to do – because learning is embedded by working through a problem. This is a bit different than the frequent check-ins, where learners remember for next time; here, the process helps the learner synthesise both the information itself and the rationale. Essentially, they have to learn not in order to repeat information back, but to use it. To support this learning principle, provide activities that encourage users’ own analysis of the rationale and information. Case studies are a powerful tactic for ‘desirable difficulties’, as are workshop activities in which small groups work through a problem and, for example, present back to the wider group.

Allow self-paced and -directed learning

This principle is especially important when creating learning platforms – the use of which is increasing as a result of the hyper-digital, post-COVID world. Yes, we need to make sure all users get the same information. But that doesn’t mean they all want to work through it in the same way. So you’ll want to provide more than one route, even for the same materials:

  • A search function – for those who have an immediate need
  • Module-based – for those who like to learn chronologically
  • Topic-based – for those who like to learn everything about one aspect at a time

This is a simple matter of tagging content appropriately, to optimise the user experience throughout the life of the learning platform.

Compelling healthcare communications solutions

Remember, just because learning styles are a myth, it doesn’t mean they’re not based in some fact. Evidence does suggest that people have different abilities, interests, backgrounds and knowledge. So if they are good at, for example, reading, they tend to like that ‘style’, but it does not make learning more effective. Furthermore, implementing the little tricks described above help the learner perceive the education as more personalised, which only enhances their satisfaction with the experience – which also supports knowledge retention. These are just a few of the insights we’re building on every day to optimise medical education programmes for Bedrock Healthcare Communication’s clients.