Adult learning styles: fact or fiction?
Do you believe that learning styles are legitimate and real? If you do, 90% of people, according to a range of studies, agree with you.
However, some academics and professionals (such as some psychologists) disagree. They don’t believe that models of different learning styles are valid and point to all sorts of studies and examples that disprove them.
Various theories and models of learning styles
Let’s be blunt – not all theories and models looking at different learning styles are created equal. Some are poorly thought out and unsubstantiated. Others are well researched and substantial like the VAK model or Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.
I believe the doubters are wrong to simply dismiss these theories and models.
What the academics are missing
They aren’t really wrong, they are just being too literal. Some of what they say is accurate – for example, you can’t (shouldn’t) simply put a person in one definitive category because:
- The way an individual learn varies across different situations
- Preferred ways of learning can’t easily be separated from each other
- People often can’t be put in simple categories – some people prefer a blend of numerous ways of learning
I totally agree with them. But they are missing the point.
The real point of adult learning styles - for the corporate trainers
The principle use of learning styles should be in learning design and overall learning delivery – not in categorising individuals and using that to inflict one blanket style of learning instruction upon them.
When used in the right way, learning styles influence the way a corporate training program is put together and the way a skillful learning facilitator delivers that program.
Learning styles in instructional design
A well designed corporate training program will incorporate elements from various learning styles. It will deliberately vary the delivery method throughout the course to ensure that participants have the opportunity to participate in different ways.
This could include:
- Listening to the corporate trainer provide information
- Reading information from overheads, course manuals and handouts
- Watching the learning facilitator demonstrate something
- Doing things that require their active participation
Of course, these things are happening concurrently a lot of the time – for example listening to the facilitator and looking at key points or illustrations on overheads.
Integrating these approaches means that the facilitator engages:
- As many of the senses as possible
- Various ways of receiving and absorbing information
- A range of preferences for engaging with learning
A multi-sensory, multi strategy approach also deliver on some universal principles of effective learning:
- Variety – it doesn’t matter what your learning style is, if you do the same thing for too long, it loses its impact
- Repetition – it won’t surprise you that we don’t retain everything we learn (at least consciously). If only I knew today everything I had ever learnt! Repetition is widely recognised as one way to improve retention
Learning styles in training delivery
A quality facilitator will take well-designed learning materials and manage their delivery in a way that caters for a range of learning preferences. They will:
- Be in tune with the room and the participants
- Know when something isn’t working, or when an approach is getting stale
- Have the skills and awareness to vary their delivery – instead of persisting with an ineffective approach.
This might just be what you are looking for: 9 people who make learning and development jobs challenging (infographic)
Do your personal experiences indicate learning styles?
The academics can dispute the existence of learning styles all they like – but I know from simple life experience that there are some ways I learn well and others I learn poorly.
When my wife reads something to me from a newspaper, I have to move where I can read the article for myself – I like to absorb that information visually and find it hard to process and listen at the same time. By the way, this excuse isn’t apparently not adequate when I haven’t listened to ‘perfectly simple instructions!”
When I am assembling something (why don’t they just put it together for me!), the written instructions are the absolute last resort. I need to see the picture of the final product on the box and I need to unpack and layout the bits – then start experimenting with them.
Yes – I know these two situations are a bit contradictory. With the newspaper, I need to read it not hear it. With the assembly, I need to do it not read instructions. As we said before, learning styles vary across different situations and I can’t be placed in one simple box.
How about you? What ways of absorbing information and learning new things do you naturally gravitate to? Which are more difficult for you?
Using learning styles for individual learners
While the main application for learning styles should be in overall learning design and delivery, not adapting to an individual’s preferences is just plain lazy. When I hear a corporate trainer outright dismissing learning styles, I always feel that is cop out.
I agree: we can’t rigidly categorise someone as a certain type of learner; we can’t assume their learning preferences will be the same across all situations; and learning styles aren’t black and white - people may be, and often are, a blend of styles.
But – without doubt each individual learner has preferences in a given situation. Not even bothering to observe, identify, adjust and adapt is lazy.
A great learning facilitator never does less than what is possible to maximize the chances of a good learning outcome.
photo credit: Women's skillshare: foxhole radios via photopin (license)